2013-01-11 / Front Page

School officials brace for cuts from state aid

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA – Gov. Paul LePage issued a curtailment order Dec. 27 that will force schools around Maine to cut $12.58 million by June 30. As a part of that curtailment, South Portland and Cape Elizabeth will have to cut their school budgets by more than $600,000 combined in the next six months.

The governor’s curtailment reduced state aid to South Portland by about $411,000, and cut about $197,000 from the Cape Elizabeth school budget. The cuts were part of a $35.5 million overall budget reduction recommended by LePage.

However, as tough as the cuts will be between now and June, some school officials said the biggest challenge may be coming with the next budget season.

“We’ll get through the current year. It wont be easy, it certainly won’t be fun, but we’ll get through it because unfortunately we’re practiced at this,” said South Portland School Board Chairman Richard Carter. “I am concerned that next year will be a very difficult year.”

Carter has served on the board of education for nine years, and has seen curtailments in three of the last four years. In 2010, a curtailment did not affect general purpose aid. In 2008 and 2009, state education funding was cut by $38 million and $27 million, respectively.

Cape Elizabeth School Board Chairman John Christie said the town’s experience with previous budget curtailments is a “limited benefit when you’re facing a shortfall in a revenue line item, but we are practiced at finding ways to deal with it.”

After LePage signed the order, the department of education sent a tweet that said the curtailment this year is “challenging, but was worse in ‘08 ($38m), ‘09 ($27m).”

However, in both those years, South Portland Superintendent Suzanne Godin explained, there was federal money waiting to replace the areas cut in the following year’s budget through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“At the end of the year we were made whole. I don’t anticipate that being available this year,” Godin said.

The Maine Legislature reconvened Tuesday, Jan. 8. District 124 Rep. Bryan Kaenrath (D-South Portland) said the House Appropriations Committee will review the curtailment, then a vote will likely be held before the end of January.

Maine Department of Education Communications Director David Connerty-Marin said LePage’s curtailment doesn’t make any cuts official without approval from the Legislature, but in previous years, Connerty-Marin has never seen a drastic change between the curtailment order proposed by the governor and the order approved by the Legislature.

Kaenrath said there will likely be some “piecemeal” changes to the governor’s order from the Legislature, but nothing drastic, and he called the cuts to education an “unfortunate harsh reality” of the current budget picture.

“We have $35.5 million to fill and it has to be filled somehow,” Kaenrath said.

The curtailment did not come as a surprise to Godin or Cape Elizabeth Superintendent of Schools Meredith Nadeau. Both superintendents put hiring freezes in place in December, when they received word a curtailment was likely on the way.

Godin said she will meet with members of the school board and a group of city staff to formulate a plan before February. In years past, the group cut expenses from funds for travel and supplies to keep “what was essential for operation,” Godin said.

Nadeau said Cape Elizabeth was also prepared for the shortfall, and will absorb the cutback without reducing funding to educational programming. According to Nadeau and Christie, savings in energy and health care costs, as well as money put away for a “contingency” line item to handle unexpected costs, will help Cape Elizabeth deal with the curtailment.

However, while the town was prepared this year, Nadeau also has a wary eye to the future.

The town hasn’t entered into its first phase of budgeting for 2013-2014, but even before discussions officially begin, Nadeau said, “In the back of our minds, it’s very clear that we will have less funding from the state.”

The $411,000 cut to South Portland schools is the second largest in Maine. Only Portland schools face a more drastic cut, at about $870,000. Scarborough’s reduction is third highest at $392,000.

Godin said she was not concerned that South Portland schools were more affected by the cuts than other districts in Maine, but she did suggest the state’s funding formula could be revisited.

“The bigger issue is the funding formula. Local income is not considered a part of that formula, for me that’s a bigger concern,” Godin said.

The school districts most heavily impacted are districts with high property values. That’s because when calculating funding for each district, the state of Maine bases a community’s ability to pay on its property tax rate. Therefore, coastal communities such as Portland, South Portland, Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth received proportionally higher cuts than other districts in the curtailment.

Connerty-Marin said while the numbers may look drastically different on paper, proportionally the difference in budget cuts is not all that significant among individual districts in Maine. He also noted there are no changes to the formula when cuts take place. The same budget formula that allocates state funding is simply recalculated with about $12.5 million less overall.

“As a percentage of the total approved budget for each school, in most cases (the decreases are) fairly close, less than 1 percent of the total budget,” Connerty-Marin said.

South Portland and Cape Elizabeth are on the high end of the cuts of 1 percent to 1.2 percent. Inland communities with lower property values were on the lower end of the spectrum. For example, the total budgets in Lewiston and Waterville

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