Maine schools gear up for tough budget decisions in face of governor’s ordered cuts

By Dawn Gagnon, BDN Staff
Posted Dec. 28, 2012, at 9:22 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Word of Gov. Paul LePage’s order to cut millions in state education aid is expected to result in some tough budget decisions for Maine’s public education leaders in the months ahead.

In a letter to school officials, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the curtailment will cut $12.58 million from state education aid.

In Bangor, that will mean a $271,000 cut from the $16.48 million the city originally was allotted in the state budget. For Portland, that means $870,000 cut from its aid package of $14.06 million.

School districts won’t see reductions in their monthly subsidy checks until the Legislature acts on the school aid cuts.

The curtailment, announced Thursday, comes nearly half way through the state’s fiscal year. It did not come as a surprise to some — including Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb, who said she and other school officials had heard whispers about plans for the curtailment for the last several weeks.

To that end, she said, she imposed a hiring and budget freeze on Dec. 17 “because we knew the governor was talking about curtailment.”

“We have no breathing room. It’s going to be difficult,” Webb said.

According to Webb, this year’s $41.2 million education budget is down about .4 percent from last year’s and the school department has seen flat budgets for the past four years.

Bangor school officials had planned to carry $1.2 million in funds not used in this year’s budget forward into next year’s budget to ease the burden on city taxpayers next year. Now it appears some of that money won’t be available.

The Bangor School Department has yet to determine how it will absorb the proposed reduction in state aid, Webb said. That will be among the department’s priorities when administrators return from the annual winter break.

Some things, however, were clear as of Friday.

“Expenditures that were planned for we’ll have to hold back on. Obviously, our most precious and valuable resource is out staff,” Webb said, adding that research has shown that the quality of staff — which comprises nearly 80 percent of the department’s budget — is the leading factor in student success.

“We will do everything in our power to [find ways to reduce costs] but it certainly means for a very lean second half of the year,” she said. Some budget areas that will be scrutinized are building improvements and equipment and supply purchases.

The University of Maine System is facing a similar predicament.

Ryan Low, the system’s director of government relations and external affairs, said Maine’s university’s are bracing for a $2.5 million loss from its base state subsidy of about $190 million. The budget cuts will be divvied up among the systems seven campuses based on a formula that takes into account each campus’ share of the total appropriation.

The solutions, he said, “may be different for each campus.”

“It’s a big number,” he said. “It’s still a little early in the process of assessing what the impact will be. We’re still kind of in the information gathering phase.”

The system’s goal, however, will be to minimize or eliminate any impact on students, he said.

Bangor Daily News writer Matthew Stone contributed to this report.

http://bangordailynews.com/2012/12/28/news/state/maine-schools-gear-up-for-tough-budget-decisions-in-face-of-governors-ordered-cuts/ printed on September 21, 2014