Bath-area school budget facing $1 million gap

Posted Jan. 10, 2012, at 7:58 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 27, 2012, at 2:01 p.m.

BATH, Maine — A drying up of federal stimulus money and nearly across-the-board increases in expenses will create another tough budget year in Regional School Unit 1, said Superintendent Patrick Manuel.

Manuel, who took the helm of the Bath-area schools in July, said the district’s financial situation is just beginning to come into focus and that over the next few weeks the school board will begin the process of identifying where it can save money or whether towns in the district can afford tax increases. RSU 1 serves the towns of Arrowsic, Bath, Phippsburg, West Bath and Woolwich.

Manuel said that like most school systems in Maine, RSU 1 has seen falling revenues and increased expenses take a toll on its budget for several years running.

“It’s grim,” said Manuel. “We’re looking at the possibility of having to fill a $1 million gap. That’s the message we’re trying to get out.”

Manuel said the district is soliciting ideas that would save money on several fronts, including a survey he said would be posted on the RSU 1 website by the end of this week. The survey, which also was circulated last year, asks participants to prioritize how local education dollars are spent. Manuel asks participants to take the survey by the end of this month so the results can be factored in to decisions.

“I’m not naive. I can’t pretend I know everything,” said Manuel, who before becoming superintendent was a long-time principal at Phippsburg Elementary School. “We’re just trying to get as many people involved in the process as we can.”

Manuel said the district is set to lose about $480,000 in federal stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which expired last year. He said RSU 1 also faced reductions in Medicaid reimbursements and tuition dollars coming to area schools from outside the district. On the expense side, there are projected jumps in everything from fuel oil to insurance policies to salaries, which total around $500,000 in increases.

It’s not all bad news. An expected $100,000 increase in state subsidy for education in the fiscal year that begins July 1 will soften the blow, but won’t eliminate the need to make some tough decisions, said Manuel.

“We’re just starting this process and it’s not something we’re looking forward to,” he said.

The net effect is a budget gap of around $1 million. RSU 1’s budget in the current year is about $25.5 million.

Manuel said administrators in the district are working on suggestions about where to save money and will report to the district’s finance committee in February. Voters in the district will decide on the overall budget in June.

While short-term savings are sought, Manuel said the district is looking at ways to save money in the long term. A committee is being formed to study the district’s buildings to determine if there is a way to close a school or other district building to save money. Manuel said that discussion is in its infancy and he couldn’t speculate about where it might lead.

“We’re trying to form a committee that we can rely on over the next few years,” he said. “Those won’t be easy decisions, but it’s better to [close buildings] than to cut programs and staff.”

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