FORT KENT, Maine — The financial ball is back in the administrative court after the SAD 27 board of directors voted Thursday night to postpone any immediate cuts addressing a projected $345,000 budget shortfall next year.
Calling the looming shortfall an unprecedented crisis in the district, James O’Malley, board chairman, said drops in enrollment coupled with reductions in state funding led the board to consider “Draconian measures” including closing one of the district’s four elementary schools.
During the SAD 27 board’s annual retreat last month, those discussions centered on closing the Wallagrass Elementary School, reducing the district’s co-curricular budget by $200,000 and taking $50,000 away from the adult education program as ways to close the budget gap.
Instead, by a 9-3 vote, the board opted Thursday night to postpone action on school closures indefinitely and by a unanimous vote agreed school administrators and coaches will be asked to look for ways to come up with the savings from co-curricular programs and from the adult education program.
In fact, by Thursday’s meeting the board had backed off from singling out the Wallagrass school for possible closure.
Rather, the warrant article on the agenda directed the administration to “immediately initiate the process of closing an elementary school effective July 1, 2012.”
SAD 27 also has schools in Eagle Lake, Fort Kent and St. Francis.
The district is a member of AOS 95 since administrative consolidation with SAD 10 in Allagash, but the decision whether or not to close an elementary school in SAD 27 falls solely with that district and its school board.
According to O’Malley, officials at the Maine Department of Education recommended the board not single out one school for possible closure at this time.
“At the [annual] retreat, the consensus among the board members was to look at Wallagrass Elementary School,” O’Malley said. “But in subsequent talks with the state, they said all communities in the district must have a chance to weigh in on the issue and be considered.”
Rep. John Martin, who also is a board member, said such talks are unnecessary at this point.
“If the state budgets funding appropriately, there will be no need to close a school,” Martin said. “Tonight is an improper time to start these talks that will pit one town and one community against the other.”
By January, Martin contended, the board will have a better feeling of the mood of the newly elected Legislature and governor in Augusta regarding school funding and any possible dollar reductions.
According to a PowerPoint presentation by Lucy Tabor, SAD 27 chief financial officer, the trend in Augusta has been to reduce the district’s funding.
At the state level, general purpose aid to education has dropped in each of the past four budget cycles — from $978 million in 2007-2008 to a projected $877 million for 2011-2012.
Beginning with the 2008-2009 budget, federal stimulus funds helped mitigate the state reductions, but those funds ran out last year, and now districts around the state are being forced to make some hard financial decisions.
“I wish I could share John’s optimism that in three months he’ll come charging in with a pocketful of cash from Augusta,” O’Malley said. “My gut feeling is as long as we delay action the worse it will be for everyone.”
Board member Danny Nicolas agreed.
“There is great hope for the next Legislature and funding,” Nicolas said. “But when do they decide? In April or May and then we have to scramble.”
On Friday, Patrick O’Neill, district superintendent, said normally the school budget begins to take shape in November when he and Tabor calculate the district’s fixed costs.
The two next meet with the separate schools’ administrators who prepare budget requests based on projected funding amounts.
By March the board has its first draft of the proposed budget, and by late May it is ready to be presented to the public.
“Our projections have to be pretty darn close to what we end of up getting from the state or we have to start over again and find ways to cut,” O’Neill said.
More than 150 residents were on hand for the meeting Thursday and a dozen signed up to speak, a majority against closing Wallagrass or any district elementary school.
“When a town loses a church or a school there is not much left of that town,” Elaine Desjardins, retired SAD 27 teacher who taught in Wallagrass, said. “To read about those closings in the newspaper is like reading our obituary.”
Desjardins was joined by several other residents in noting they first learned about any potential school closings through articles in the media.
“When our first information comes from the press, something is wrong,” Amy Ouellette, parent of a Wallagrass Elementary School student, said. “It shows a lack of trust on the part of the board.”
Suggestions from residents to deal with any shortfalls included undertaking feasibility studies of school closures, reducing salaries by 3 percent districtwide, eliminating positions and fundraising.
At least one resident disagreed.
“Student populations are declining, we have more and more people on fixed incomes and the tax base is increasing,” said Priscilla Staples, a Fort Kent town councilor. “We just can’t afford to continue funding all the schools.”
Rather than put off dealing with the inevitable — or as she put it, “kicking the can down the road” — Staples, a former SAD 27 board member, suggested using the energy and enthusiasm of the residents represented at Thursday’s meeting to come up with viable solutions now.
“We need everybody here tonight to do something about this massive problem,” Staples said. “We know what we need to do and we can do it together in a planned fashion.”
The two board members representing the Wallagrass community urged the board to not take quick action.
“We need to take a wait-and-see attitude,” Kelly O’Leary, board member from Wallagrass, said. “At some point we are going to need a nonpolitical, unbiased look to determine what’s the best thing to do.”
O’Malley encouraged residents to get involved with the district’s strategic planning committee to offer suggestions on funding options.
But he also warned residents it would not be easy.
“This problem is not going away,” O’Malley said. “So many of the suggestions we’ve had are Band-Aids and what we are looking for is a tourniquet.”