Old Town-area school unit facing significant reduction in state aid

Posted Feb. 09, 2010, at 8:47 p.m.

Schools in Milford, Alton, Bradley and Old Town will be scrambling to maintain essential staff and programming next school year because of projected cuts in state education subsidies. But tiny Greenbush, population 1,421, will actually see a small increase in state aid.

Voters in Alton, Bradley and Old Town voted last year to consolidate their schools into Regional School Unit 34. Milford and Greenbush voted to remain outside the RSU.

RSU 34 Superintendent David Walker said in a recent interview that the anticipated cuts, which the state says are needed to offset tax revenue losses related to the national recession, will have a significant impact on operations. The cuts are on target to take effect in July.

“We stand to lose $602,000 in general purpose aid to education,” Walker said. “If everything else stayed equal, we would either reduce our budget by that much or else look to our taxpayers to make up the shortfall.”

But the costs of basic operations are expected to rise by about 3 percent next year, Walker said, adding about $480,000 to the RSU’s $16 million budget.

“So now, just to keep doing what we’re doing this year, we’re looking at a hole of about $1 million,” he said. Walker said a property tax increase is not on the horizon in the communities that make up RSU 34. Area schools already have implemented “every efficiency possible” in recent years, he said, particularly since the closure of the former Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Old Town.

The mill has since been sold and is doing business as Old Town Fuel and Fiber, but the city continues to feel the effect of lost tax revenues.

In addition, Walker said, lawmakers are considering delaying penalties on “nonconforming” schools such as Milford and Greenbush that did not consolidate. Those penalties would have contributed about $40,000 next year to RSU 34, he said.

“We’ll be looking at eliminating some staff and programs,” Walker said. A list of possible eliminations is being compiled, he said, but nothing has been decided yet.

John Davis, part-time superintendent in Milford, said state cuts would reduce the budget of the 300-student Viola Rand School by about $200,000. With a $5 million budget, he said, the decrease is significant.

“It has to come out of either programs or bodies,” he said. One teacher will retire this year and will not be replaced, he said, and one part-time administrative position at the school may be eliminated. Other options are still being explored, he said. Davis said he prefers not to cut into enrichment programs such as art and music.

About 160 students from kindergarten through grade eight attend the Helen Dunn School in Greenbush. According to Jerry White, who provides contractual superintendent services to the nonconforming school district from the offices of RSU 31 in Howland, Greenbush will not see a reduction in state funding for the next school year.

In fact, White said, despite the overall cuts in Augusta, Greenbush will receive about $23,000 more than it did last year because of the number of students and the property valuations in the town.

“Compared to other districts, we’re really not in bad shape,” White said. With a “very austere budget” this year of about $2.3 million, White said, the Greenbush school will continue to look for efficiencies in both staff and programs.

Voters in Greenbush and Milford have the option of revisiting their decision not to join forces with RSU 34, but both White and Davis said there has been no indication that voters are having second thoughts.

Walker said the communities represented in the RSU generally are faring better than they would have as separate school districts.

“Each of our communities would be in worse shape if we hadn’t done the consolidation,” he said.

Statewide, Gov. John Baldacci’s proposed supplemental budget would decrease total general purpose aid to education by $91 million, to $911 million in 2011.

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