2014-01-31 / Front Page

Budgets: superintendents speak out

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

SOUTHERN MAINE – In coming weeks, school departments across the state will begin rolling out budgets to be reviewed and scrutinized by elected officials and voters. The process of establishing a school budget can be an arduous task for superintendents because many financial factors are unknown until the budget is nearly finalized, and sometimes not until after it has already been approved.

“Oftentimes, superintendents feel like we’re in a kind of three-way vice,” said Patrick Phillips, superintendent of Regional School Unit 23, which includes Dayton, Old Orchard Beach and Saco. “On one side, there is decreasing support from the state. On another side, there are local property taxpayers, and the third is the uncertainly about health care costs and state subsidies.”

“With all these uncertainties, there is not much margin for error,” he added.

Cape Elizabeth Superintendent Meredith Nadeau said even though schools don’t know what state aid will be from year to year, or how much energy costs or insurance rates will go up, it is important for schools to “try to stay focused.”

“The bottom line,” Nadeau said, “is to put forward a budget that will support instructional programs.”

At the beginning of the next school year, schools will begin implementing state-mandated Common Core standards in their classrooms. The standards outline sets of benchmarks and expected outcomes for each content area at each grade level.

“We’re not even getting at the bigger question, which is whether the level of spending is commensurate to the challenge of educating all students to a high level of standards,” Phillips said. “There are very significant education policy issues mandated from above … yet at the same time as they are mandating challenging work, they’re going to give you less money to do it.”

Biddeford Superintendent Jeremy Ray said the race to increase standards with decreasing resources is a “balancing act.”

“You don’t move to a standards-based diploma without a lot of work in between,” Ray said. “You need student information systems, report card systems, a tracking mechanism. There’s always such a call for data and availability and how to use that data, yet we still need to put services in front of kids. It’s like asking for a better product that can’t cost more.”

In Scarborough, Superintendent George Entwistle said he has tried to “reinvent things so they don’t seem so torturous.”

Entwistle said Scarborough schools make all their budgeting decisions through the lens of a school improvement plan, which is the result of an 18-month process that starts with an open community meeting that attracts nearly 400 people.

“It’s one of the largest public gatherings of stakeholders of schools,” Entwistle said. “We assemble the critical mass.”

There is no agenda at the gathering and residents are allowed to collectively set their own educational priorities. Teachers and administrators then vet the community expectations and try to devise a plan to execute them.

“We always have a plan to guide us through the budget process,” Entwistle said. “A budget is just a plan for resource allocation that forces us to think about what we need to attain the objectives of the plan. The public tends to think budgets are willy-nilly, that we’re just pulling together wish lists, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Entwistle said all new proposals for expenditures submitted by administrators are considered on the basis of how much they work to attain the goals set forth in the educational plan. Unlike other school districts, where a superintendent’s budget is submitted to a school board, Entwistle said a leadership council of principals and department heads work together to submit a “leadership council” budget. Oftentimes, principals may forego their own proposals in favor of programs in other schools in the district that might be more aligned with the district’s goals.

“Everybody has a really good K-12 perspective,” Entwistle said.

Nadeau said she once worked in a New Hampshire community where school budgets were approved line by line by voters at a town meeting.

“The school belongs to the community, so their voice in the process is critical,” she said. “You have to be really thoughtful in considering the impact of mandates and in how applying resources to deliver services.”

Kate Bolton, finance director for Scarborough schools, said fixed costs such as human resources and facilities maintenance – including electricity and heat – make up 80 percent of the school’s budget. After supplies and equipment are factored in, the district is left with 10 percent or less of the budget with which to implement the community’s goals.

“The biggest chunk is human resources because all the jobs require human interaction, we don’t have huge machines,” Bolton said.

With people come benefits and obligations for wage adjustments.

“It’s not like we can just get teacher robots,” Bolton said.

On a year-to-year basis, teachers at public schools are almost guaranteed to be uncertain whether they will have a job the following year.

Andrew Dolloff, superintendent of Regional School Unit 21, which includes Arundel, Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, said his district has made staff reductions each year for the past five years.

“It’s difficult to tell people their position is being reduced or eliminated – it’s not something any of us relish doing,” Dolloff said. “For the most part, we are able to help people find a different direction for their career or other opportunities. It is very difficult to eliminate programs that are effective for students, and eliminating jobs in a tough economy is a Catch 22. To contribute to unemployment doesn’t help the economy.”

Phillips said, “You have to focus on what you can do to make a difference in the lives of children and try to figure out how to do the best with what you have. Educators tend to be glass-half-full people. You can be really unfair to us but we will still tend to be optimistic by nature.”

“If you don’t know if you’re going to have a job, it can be taxing for people,” said Ray. “It’s tough, teachers get stretched, they get beat up by the onslaught of what they read in the media about it. They hear about their jobs being eliminated, yet they still show up the next morning with kids in the classroom to teach. I’m proud that they do their best to be positive.”

Entwistle said a negative spin can always be put on school budgets, but a K-12 perspective helps his team stay positive.

“Inevitably we never get everything that we want, it’s just a matter of how much of what we want will we actually get or how much will we lose,” he said.

Nadeau said keeping class sizes at acceptable levels and instituting rigorous standards is always a challenge with fewer resources from the state being made available to communities.

“Teachers are fortunately generally creative and resourceful, but it doesn’t make it any less challenging,” Nadeau said. Phillips questioned the priorities of state lawmakers who expect schools to produce high-performing students, yet don’t provide the support to make it happen.

“It seems unethical to raise standards and roll back resources at the same time,” Phillips said.

“It’s a political process,” said Nadeau, “and some of the values get mixed up in the process. There’s definitely a sense of frustration. You hope you are making the right calculations. You just don’t know how it’s going to turn out and that breeds skepticism. For me and my team, we try to stay focused on what is the important piece – educating students – because we can’t control all the variables.”

Although important pieces of the budgetary picture – such as increases in health insurance and energy costs, or state subsidies – don’t become clear until later in the process, superintendents say they do their best to establish their budgets with the factors that are certain, and their best projections for what is unknown.

At the end of the day however, no matter what the budgetary outcome, superintendents say the teachers will keep showing up in the classroom to educate the next generation.

“It’s a higher calling,” said Phillips. “We do this because we’re passionate about it.”

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