Newport-area superintendent addresses public on potential $1.9 million shortfall

Posted Aug. 14, 2012, at 9:57 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 14, 2012, at 10:48 p.m.

NEWPORT, Maine — In just his seventh week on the job, new Regional School Unit 19 Superintendent Greg Potter faced a crowd of more than 200 people to lay out the dire financial situation of the district on Tuesday evening.

“We’ll run out of money. I doubt I’ll make payroll toward the end of November,” said Potter, while presenting a slide presentation to illustrate what has happened to bring RSU 19 into what he estimates may be a $1.9 million shortfall.

Towns included in RSU 19 are Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Newport, Palmyra, Plymouth and St. Albans. Selectmen, town managers, teachers and residents from the towns listened and asked questions in the warm and humid cafeteria at Nokomis Regional High School. The school district’s budget committee as well as auditors were at the meeting.

Potter explained how multiple errors led to the deficit.

“I believe very strongly that when we [have our audit completed for the 2012 fiscal year], that negative swing is only going to be increased because of the overly gracious anticipation of fund balance help. I put $1.5 million on that and did some additional looking into this today. I think it’s going to be more in the neighborhood of $1.9 [million].”

Many gasps could be heard among the crowd when the final figure was announced by Potter. He said he could not give a definite number because the audit was not yet completed.

The school district anticipated fund balance help of $390,000 for the 2011 fiscal year, $830,000 for the 2012 fiscal year and $661,803 for the current school year. Potter said there shouldn’t have been any anticipated fund balance help, because the money wasn’t there.

To add to the problem, a spreadsheet error led to RSU 19 not billing the eight towns for voter-approved debt service in the amount of $362,916 for the 2012 fiscal year.

Potter said he feared that if a solution isn’t found soon to correct the problems, the school district’s debt could balloon to as much as $3 million for next year.

To help curtail some of the issues, Potter said he has frozen spending in the district. He has also found the potential for $790,741 in estimated cuts in this year’s budget, which includes personnel hiring, heating fuel, food service, building maintenance and improvements and planned energy assessment.

RSU 19 likely will have a measure on November’s ballot requesting funds from voters of the eight towns.

That didn’t sit well with St. Albans selectman Jason Gould.

“Look at your school budget vote the last time around. Six out of eight towns voted it down. They weren’t happy the first time around. They’re really not going to be happy this time around,” said Gould during the question-and-answer session that lasted well over an hour. “My point being, the answer of ‘Oh, we’re just going to go to the towns.’ That’s no dice. Because the well is dry. The well has been dry for a number of years, but we continue to dip the bucket in.”

The first step, Potter said, will be to have workshops with the board of directors to devise a plan to fix the budget shortfall. The next step would be to find a bank to work with for a loan, and if that is not approved by the public in November, other cuts might be in store.

“It will get to a point where no superintendent likes to be,” said Potter. “I don’t know know if that means [cutting] athletics. I don’t know if that means [cutting] extra-curricular [activities]. I don’t know if it means [cutting] other programs we aren’t required to offer by law.

“I don’t have those answers, but we continue to work,” said Potter.

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