Bangor schools brace for lean budget year

Posted Dec. 18, 2009, at 9:17 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — After painstakingly trimming $750,000 from the current fiscal year budget to offset a state curtailment, the Bangor School Department has begun preparing for even less in state subsidy for fiscal year 2011.

Superintendent Betsy Webb outlined the budget scenario to members of the Bangor School Committee on Thursday and said the bleak financial picture is going to mean some tough choices. The high end of projections — based on some variables that still are not clear — indicate that Bangor could receive $2 million less from the state next year.

“This is a dramatic drop-off from where school departments thought they would be,” she said.

In any budget, the only way to make numbers add up is to increase revenue — taxes — or to decrease expenses — eliminating positions. Webb said she thinks the Bangor School Department may have to come up with a budget that does a little of both.

“This community has a longstanding tradition of expecting quality when it comes to education,” she said. “We definitely don’t want to take anything away from students.”

Phyllis Guerette, chairwoman of the Bangor School Committee, said the projected cuts are the biggest she has seen during her tenure.

“We’re already a very lean organization,” she said. “We stretch every dollar that we receive to the maximum. In my dream world, we could still do everything we do now and absorb the cuts, but clearly that’s not the way it’s going to happen.”

To make up the gap created by Gov. John Baldacci’s supplemental budget that was put forward on Friday, the Bangor School Department already has cut $750,000 from the remainder of the 2010 fiscal year. In order to reach that total, Webb said, $300,000 has been cut from minor capital projects, $290,000 from supplies and $150,000 from textbooks, among other things.

In order to offset the projected state cuts in 2011, Webb said it’s unlikely the School Department could do that without affecting personnel, which makes up 80 percent of the total budget of more than $40 million.

One of the things Webb stressed on Thursday was that there are still unknowns. The state Department of Education provides funding based on a formula designed to pay for what it calls essential services and programs. The two biggest factors in the state funding formula are enrollment and property valuation.

In Bangor’s case, Webb said, enrollment has been steady while the statewide numbers have declined. That’s good news. Similarly, Bangor’s property valuation has grown at a smaller rate than the state average, which also is good news,

However, the state does not provide municipalities with the subsidy projections until sometime in February. Webb said based on the formula provided by the state, Bangor could lose as much as $2.1 million, but it could also be less. In short, the Bangor School Department and its school committee are preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.

“We’re anxious to see what we have to work with,” Guerette said. “But we’re also hopeful that the citizens will offer their support to us as they have in the past and recognize the asset of public education.”

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