Fort Kent-area school district looking at $1.8 million in budget cuts, likely 10 percent tax increase

Posted April 11, 2014, at 3:28 p.m.
Last modified April 11, 2014, at 7:23 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — Residents of SAD 27 are looking at a double-digit tax increase even if cuts are made to meet a $1.8 million shortfall in the 2014-2015 budget, officials said.

“There is nothing good about this,” Lucie Tabor, SAD 27 director of finance and projects, said this week. “We have quite a mess on our hands.”

The mess, she said, was created by a combination of increased costs, shrinking state funding and declining enrollment that will translate into staffing cuts, loss of districtwide programs and possible closure of a school.

Salary increases based on collective bargaining agreements, a 9.5 percent rate hike from the district’s insurance provider, Anthem Blue Cross-Blue Shield, and increases in costs in everything from heating fuel to equipment drove the anticipated budget up by $1.3 million over this year to fund current levels of services, Tabor said.

This year’s budget is $12.5 million.

There are 969 students in the district — spread among elementary schools in Fort Kent, St. Francis, Eagle Lake and Wallagrass, as well as Fort Kent Community High School — and that number is dropping, according to district superintendent Tim Doak.

“We are losing students,” Doak said Friday afternoon. “We have lost 62 over the last three years and will 40 more next year.”

That, combined with slight state valuation gains around the district, create a worst-case scenario when it comes to school funding, he said, since the state’s funding formula is based on valuation and enrollment.

“On the funding side, at the moment it shows we are receiving $500,000 less from the state for next year,” Tabor said. “That brings us to the $1.8 million.”

The as-yet unapproved withdrawal of Winterville from SAD 27 also could pull revenue from the district, Tabor said.

Knowing full well district taxpayers could not be asked to come up with that, Tabor said, the SAD 27 board of directors earlier this week mandated a zero percent increase, meaning $1.8 million in cuts and reductions must be found within the budget.

“If the budget were to go through without the cuts, it would mean a 4.5 mill [and] 10 percent tax increase,” Tabor said. “The board said ‘no way.’”

In Fort Kent, for example, that would raise the current mill rate from $17.35 to $21.85.

“We asked the superintendent and finance director to come back to us with zero increases in expenditures,” Danny Nicolas, vice chairman of the SAD 27 board of directors, said Friday. “That does not mean taxes won’t go up because of what the state is doing [reducing] local finances.”

At this point, according to Tabor, everything is on the table.

“We are looking at drastic cuts,” she said. “As we move forward we are thinking of students first, staff second and keeping in mind the taxpayers.”

The district already has moved to eliminate golf, wrestling, track and all junior varsity teams in addition to the elementary music program and all late buses.

So far, Tabor said, her office has identified 20 possible staff eliminations including teachers, administration, maintenance and clerical staff; increased class sizes and combining grade levels.

“It is 100 percent certain we will be losing staff,” she said. “We do have staff retiring or resigning [but] the rest will be through a reduction in force.”

SAD 27 is outlining an early retirement incentive plan, Tabor said, and all staff affected by position cuts will be notified no later than May 15.

With enrollment anticipated at 32 students from pre-kindergarten through grade four, the elementary school in St. Francis has the smallest student population and Tabor said closing its doors and busing those students to Fort Kent is under consideration.

“It no longer makes sense to keep [St. Francis Elementary School] open as it is,” she said. “We have to look at closing or reconfiguring the grades into multiage classrooms.

Even with all the cuts, Tabor said SAD 27 taxpayers could face a minimum 10 percent increase thanks to the loss of state revenues.

“There are still unknowns,” she said. “We have not gotten the final numbers from the state and those figures could be revised.”

In addition, she said there is a chance Winterville’s application to withdraw could be denied by the state Department of Education.

“We are doing everything that we can,” Tabor said. “We still have to educate the kids [and] we don’t want to create a district in which they don’t want to come to school.”

The programs in line for elimination, according to Nicolas, have been attracting low numbers of students.

“In order to get to where we need to be, we also have to cut staff,” he said. “I feel bad for that.”

Tabor said there will be meetings next week with SAD 27 staff to discuss every option under consideration and there is a public informational meeting scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 15, at Fort Kent Community High School.

“We are going to lay everything out so people understand the challenges we are facing,” she said. “We are open to suggestions.”

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