Fort Kent-area administrators look to cut $1.8 million from school budget

Posted April 16, 2014, at 4:38 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — In order to meet $1.8 million in board-mandated cuts, SAD 27 administrators said everything is on the table, including closing a school and laying off staff. In addition, district residents are still looking at a best-case scenario of double-digit tax increases.

On Tuesday, SAD 27 Superintendent Tim Doak and Lucie Tabor, the district financial manager, outlined the budget options during an informational meeting at the high school. The two also warned the approximately 100 residents who attended the meeting that things are only going to get worse over the next several years.

Over the last four years, the district has seen a 10 percent drop in enrollment to 962 students, Doak said. He added that the steady decline in student population coupled with slight valuation increases in district towns, means less revenues from the state, leaving local taxpayers footing more of the education bill.

Last year, he said, the board eliminated six teaching and six education technology positions to meet a $1.5 million dollar shortfall in the 2013-14 budget .

“This year, we are looking at cutting $1.8 million out of the [2014-15] budget,” Doak said. “The following year, we are looking at another $1.5 million and another the year after that.

“We have been cutting as much as we can and still maintain educational programs over the last four or five years,” Doak said. “We really thought we had a good level playing field last year.”

Even with the cuts — which would bring the district to a zero-dollar increase in expenditures in a $12.5 million budget — taxes are still going up an average of 10 percent districtwide because of a $500,000 loss in state revenue.

At the same time, salaries are increasing in accordance with collective bargaining agreements, and health insurance rates are increasing by 9.5 percent.

“When you are looking at a budget composed of 75 percent salaries and benefits, that is where you are looking to cut,” Tabor said. “But the last place we want to go is staff.”

The district employs 200 people.

To mitigate those cuts, Doak said, the district is looking to cut the varsity golf, wrestling and track programs, all junior varsity programs, middle school music and all late buses.

Those cuts, he said, do not go far enough, and 20 teaching, administrative and staff positions have been identified for elimination.

“We are going to have to start thinking leaner and smarter for our schools,” Doak said. “If we keep losing kids and if the valuation keeps creeping up, it’s going to be disastrous.”

Doak also said the district is looking to close St. Francis Elementary School, which would provide the final $158,000 in cuts not covered by staff and program eliminations. But he added that he is not confident the needed eight out of 12 majority of the school board will go for it.

“I don’t think we have the votes,” he said. “I think St. Francis [elementary school] is going to stay.”

There are 32 students at the elementary school in St. Francis in prekindergarten through grade 5, including 17 tuitioned from SAD 10 in Allagash.

Busing them into Fort Kent could mean a 35-mile one-way ride every day for some of those students.

If the board opts to keep the school open, Doak said, he is looking at cost saving measures, including preparing the St. Francis school’s lunches in Fort Kent, multi-age classrooms and reconfiguring the building.

The board is set to vote on the St. Francis school closing at its May 30 meeting.

The two board members attending the entire meeting Tuesday night — Sophia Birden and Darnell Oliver — encouraged residents to contact their board representatives and tell them how they feel about the district budget.

Doak and Tabor said that whatever the decision, the district ultimately has to answer to the taxpayers.

“We have to find that magic budget number that our citizens will be comfortable with,” Doak said. “But we don’t want to ruin our schools, [and] this is the first year I have had people stop me on the street and tell me they can’t take these tax increases anymore.”

There was a bit of good news, according to Tabor.

The district received word this week that member community Winterville’s application to withdraw from the district had been denied by the Maine commissioner of education, meaning SAD 27 will not lose the $155,000 in state revenue that comes with the 27 students from that small town.

“But there is every indication the withdrawal will be approved for the following year,” Tabor said. “So those funds will go away.”

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