June 20, 2018
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County school district faces formidable budget challenge for 2011-12

By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

FORT KENT, Maine — At first glance the recently released preliminary state subsidy information for education funding appears to have some good news for AOS 95.

While a majority of the school districts in the state are looking at reductions in their Department of Education Essential Programs and Services allotments, this northern Aroostook County district’s adjusted state share is on the plus side by a net $7,738.

“It looks good until you see where it comes from,” Lucie Tabor, AOS 95 director of finance and programs, said late last week. Even though it looks like the district is getting more money, it doesn’t cover the additional costs for education that will have to be raised locally.

AOS 95 is the alternative organizational structure formed when SADs 27 and 10 combined to share a superintendent for administrative purposes only. Each retains their school boards and budget.

For the upcoming budget for fiscal year 2011-2012, Tabor explained that the state has determined SAD 27’s total cost of delivering essential programs and services to be $9,397,533, a 4.5 percent increase over the current fiscal year’s EPS budget of $8,996,170.

The EPS budget is a combination of state and local funds and represents what the state determines is the cost of operating a school district under ideal conditions.

For 2011-2012, Tabor said, the 4.5 percent increase in the EPS budget translates to $400,000 and the taxpayers of SAD 27 are responsible for raising $371,000 of that amount. The member towns of SAD 27 are Fort Kent, St. Francis, St. John Plantation, New Canada, Wallagrass, Eagle Lake and Winterville.

“We are now in the process of putting together the budget,” Tabor said. “We just got the preliminary numbers from the state.”

Tabor said there are no doubts that cuts are on the way to bridge the $371,000 spending gap.

According to Tabor the increase in the local share is due in part to increases in town valuations and to increases in the state’s anticipated mill rate for the town.

“The value of that increase for SAD 27 is $371,000 and will have to be raised by (local taxpayers) whether we reduce our budget or not as this is the minimum required local share that the state has determined the locals must fund in order to get the full amount of the state’s share,” Tabor said. “If the locals contribute less than the required amount, the state’s portion would be reduced proportionately.”

Unfortunately, Tabor added, the inverse is not true and the state’s share does not increase if more local money is raised and appropriated.

In reality, EPS funding is rarely enough to operate a school system, Tabor said.

That is why districts such as SAD 27 turn to taxpayers every year for additional local dollars to keep the schools open and operating.

“In our case we have been over the EPS figure in total costs to educate and transport our students and maintain our buildings,” Tabor said. “Therefore, if we need to reduce our budget it is to try to get to a figure closer to that of the EPS amount calculated.”

School districts statewide benefited the past two years from an influx of federal stimulus dollars, but those funds have run out.

However, a recent move by the LePage administration has replaced some of those dollars in the education budget, but districts are still scrambling to meet projected shortfalls.

“There are some retirements coming up and some positions that will be empty due to attrition,” Tabor said. “Now we must look closely at projects and prioritize them.”

Increased costs for items such as heating oil and food are going to make the upcoming budget year a challenge, she said.

“We have been told by our suppliers that some of the food products are going to double or even quadruple in price,” she said. “The biggest challenge in determining our budget is that we know our communities have limited funds and we need to find the magic number that will allow our district the capability to provide the best quality of education, transport our students safely, maintain safe buildings, maintain as many jobs as possible while being affordable to our communities.”

Late last fall the SAD 27 board of directors discussed an option to close the Wallagrass Elementary School, cut $200,000 from the district’s co-curricular budget and $50,000 from the adult education program to close what was then projected to be a $345,000 budget gap.

“Anything is on the table,” Danny Nicholas, SAD 27 vice chairman said over the weekend. “Those who are retiring – do we replace them? We may not be able to (but) the fact we do have some retirements is in a way because it means we may not have to lay people off.”

Regardless, Nicholas predicts the upcoming budget preparations are going to be tough.

“If we can keep politics out of it and do what’s right for number one – and that’s the students – and then ultimately the taxpayers we will be OK,” he said. “We start our preliminary discussions in early March and it’s going to be hard.”

At this point, Tabor said, everything is on the table when it comes to those budgetary discussions, including possibly closing one of the four elementary schools in the district.

“We are not thinking yet of closing a school,” Tabor said. “Our first priority is to save jobs and if we can do that without closing a school that would be great.”

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