Chinese student underenrollment among factors in significant Millinocket schools budget shortfall

Posted Dec. 18, 2011, at 6:57 p.m.

MILLINOCKET, Maine — School leaders have instituted a spending freeze in anticipation of an estimated $140,000 to $150,000 shortfall caused partly by the school system’s failure to meet its goals for tuition-paying Chinese students, School Committee Chairman Arnold Hopkins said.

Hopkins bases his estimate, he said, on ongoing expenses plus a collection of shortfalls, including $72,000 resulting from three Chinese students enrolling at Stearns High School instead of an anticipated six, an approximately $25,000 shortfall from expecting $321,000 in undesignated funds but discovering $296,603 and a $10,000 shortfall in the schools’ legal services account.

“These are just the glaring ones that I can think of that we have got going on right now,” Hopkins said Saturday. “I want people to be aware of what is going on and I want us, as a board, to start working on a solution to this problem, to see if we can’t alleviate some of the problem. I want the superintendent to start coming up with some suggestions as to how we are going to handle this problem.”

Hopkins conceded that the solutions might not necessarily exist. The school system has faced budget shortfalls, declining state and federal aid and a shrinking student and population base for several years. Pink slips have been mailed to school workers for at least three of the last five years in anticipation of layoffs that usually have not come.

School committee members have responded by instituting zero-growth budgets and making significant cuts in spending.

Their attempts to consolidate with other school systems have failed, though not, school officials have said, for any lack of their own efforts. The effort to recruit students from China, in which the Chinese students pay $24,000 tuition per student, is in response to the need for revenue and the failure of consolidation.

They have also, Hopkins said, started playing the dangerous game of planning for significant savings that might not materialize.

The $1.45 million conversion of steam to hot water boilers at Stearns, in which the school’s heating systems will begin to burn No. 2 heating oil instead of the more expensive and much more rare No. 6 heating oil, is expected to save on heating costs significantly. But those savings are already folded into an $81,000 appropriation from the undesignated fund balance meant to cover the $72,000 shortfall, Hopkins said.

“We are committing money we don’t actually have yet,” Hopkins said.

The heating system upgrade is ongoing. The installation of the first of two new boilers began last week, Hopkins said.

“Thank God we have had a mild winter so far,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said he doesn’t blame anyone for the schools’ fiscal woes. Many of them arise from circumstances beyond anyone’s control — a struggling northern Maine economy and a 17 percent unemployment rate in the Katahdin region among others.

“The fault will come,” Hopkins said, “if they or we fail to do something about it.”

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