April 21, 2018
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Ellsworth, Bucksport area school districts freeze spending in face of state cuts

By Mario Moretto, BDN Staff

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Hancock County school districts are planning how they’ll absorb their share of a $12.6 million reduction in state education subsidies announced by Gov. Paul LePage in late December.

The cuts are part of a $35.5 million curtailment package ordered by the governor in order to keep the current year’s budget in balance as state revenues fall short of earlier projections.

David Bridgham, business manager for Regional School Unit 24 — Eastbrook, Ellsworth, Franklin, Gouldsboro, Hancock, Lamoine, Mariaville, Sorrento, Steuben, Sullivan, Waltham and Winter Harbor — said the district has enacted a spending freeze effective immediately.

The freeze means no school-funded field trips, no staff or faculty overtime, and no professional development conferences for teachers. It also includes a decision not to fill a handful of vacancies in nonessential posts throughout the district.

Bridgham said that while the district is dedicated to fend off layoffs in any way possible, the budget freeze may be just a first step in absorbing a $235,462 reduction in state subsidy. That’s about a 7 percent cut in state subsidy for the district.

“This may be just the first step,” Bridgham said Wednesday. “It may take us awhile, maybe a month, to know whether these steps will have enough of an impact” to absorb the cut.

Bridgham said that schools in the district may have to turn to parent-teacher organizations or booster clubs for money for activities such as round-robin tournaments or field trips that aren’t already approved.

“Most of our schools have PTOs and booster clubs and other organizations that have already stepped in and offered to pay for things,” he said. “Most of the impact will be in how the office operates, not in what kids experience.”

RSU 25, which includes Bucksport, Orland, Prospect and Verona Island, has instituted a similar spending freeze, according to Superintendent Jim Boothby. His district must make up a cut of about 11 percent in its state subsidy, or $113,400.

Aside from the freeze in nonessential spending, Boothby said the administration will recommend eliminating some budget items to the RSU board, and will look to find other sources of revenue to plug the budget gap, including dipping into the schools’ savings.

Boothby also lamented the fact that the curtailments will not hit the state’s new charter schools or the “60-40” private schools, such as George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill or John Bapst High School in Bangor. RSU 25 tuitions students to both those schools, Boothby said.

“We’re not allowed to reduce tuition to charter schools or the [private] schools,” Boothby said. “Even though it’s all public money being cut, the recipients of those public dollars are not all feeling the reduction. The burden is being felt only by the K-12 public schools.”

But not all local school districts are feeling the squeeze. Alternative Organizational Structure 91 — which includes the towns of Mount Desert Island, Tremont and outlying island communities — is a minimum subsidy receiver, and funds most of its budget with local tax dollars.

“The total projected loss is about $152,000,” said Business Manager Nancy Thurlow. “That’s less than one percent of all the [schools’] budgets.”

Howard Colter, AOS 91 superintendent, said the cuts will be found in minor budget tweaks, and won’t necessitate a district-wide spending freeze.

“Obviously, every state subsidy dollar we receive, we appreciate greatly,” Colter said. “But we are in the enviable position of being, overall, a school system that doesn’t rely too heavily on state support for our public education.”

School Union 93 — the central office for Blue Hill, Brooksville, Castine, Penobscot and Surry — also won’t face the pinch from LePage’s curtailment order. The schools will actually have a greater state subsidy than they’d budgeted for.

That’s because a fluke of scheduling leaves the school estimating its state subsidy each year before the numbers are finalized. School budgets in each Union 93 town are approved at the annual Town Meeting in March or April. At that point, the Legislature has state subsidy estimates, but won’t have firm numbers until as late as July.

“In February, a snapshot of projected subsidies was given,” Hurvitt said. “Being skeptical, I didn’t believe it. I didn’t think the number would carry through the Legislature. So I took the number and cut in half for our budget planning.”

“I guessed we’d have a much lower subsidy than we actually had,” he said. “But now, even with the curtailment, we’ve got a little way to go.”

The curtailment will likely affect the mood of school districts as they enter the budget writing season this spring, with administrators likely to incorporate a pessimistic outlook in their budgeting process.

Boothby, in RSU 25, said the cuts will assuredly affect how the district plans for next year.

“You plan to do different things whether its maintenance or technology upgrades,” he said Wednesday. “We may have to put those off. But how long can we put them off before it creates a crumbling in the infrastructure?”

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

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