Media Archive

Schools bracing for cuts in state funding

Article from The Piscataquis Observer, Vol. 165, No. 9, February 26, 2003

By Ben Bragdon
Staff Writer

MILO A couple of local school districts are bracing for what promises to be a harsh round of budget cuts brought on by the governor's plan to balance the state budget.

SAD 68 superintendent John Dimbauer has been informed that the amount of state general purpose aid coming to the district next year will fall around $385,000 short of projections due to Gov. Baldacci's budget proposal that holds to one percent the annual increase in the amount of aid spread to the state's public schools.

Removing that amount from a budget that hovers around $7 million leaves a significant hole, one that the superintendent said will cut into the core of the school system.

"This is going to be very challenging. You can't deal with that kind of cut by saving on office supplies and crayons," he said. "This is positions we are talking about. Positions and programs."

David Walker, superintendent of SAD 41, has been told that his district will receive up to $60,000 less from the state than the district projected during budget work last spring. Couple that with rising costs for fixed items such as wages, health insurance, and heating, and SAD 41 is looking at a shortfall of over $300,000, said Walker.

Walker said the only way to make up for such a deficit is to look at personnel, an unfortunate development that he said will undoubtedly be felt by the students regardless of where the cuts occur.

"Whether its an administration position, a custodial position, or a kitchen position, or wherever those staffing cuts happen, they ultimately have an effect on students because that is the business we are in," he said. "People seem to have the mindset that as long as you don't cut teachers, it has no effect on students, and that is not true."

Due to concern over the rising property tax rates in the Penquis region, Walker and Dimbauer both feel that their districts will have to work with their member towns to come up with municipal and school budgets that both pay the bills and keep intact most educational programs without laying too heavy of a burden on taxpayers.

The SAD 68 board has instructed Dimbauer to bring them a budget proposal that calls for only a modest increase over last year's level. The only increases in this year's budget, he said, will be included to cover rising wages and health insurance costs, an increase in the payment the district makes to Foxcroft Academy, and architectural fees for the new elementary school project, fees that will be reimbursed to the district at a later date.

"Other than that, our budget is going to be flat and, in fact, reduced by quite a few teaching positions," Dimbauer said.

Walker said that towns may have to sacrifice some aspects of the municipal budget to make room for increases in the education budget needed to maintain important school programs.

"I hope that towns will themselves when they come to March town meetings pass budgets that are responsible in their recognition that the schools are going to have to make some significant cuts to come in at a minimal tax increase," he said. "But in order to cover that minimal tax increase, my recommedation is that the towns look very closely at their budget in March."

"I think it is unrealistic for towns to think that schools can come with a budget that shows no increase to the taxpayers unless they completely dismantle and disintegrate programs for students."

With the call for consolidation and regionalization of educational programs getting louder across the state, such a shortfall may seem poised to accelerate those discussions as school districts look to cut funds from already tight budgets. But Walker said he feels the goal of regionalization efforts should be to manage costs while improving educational Offerings, since regionalization tends not to produce the savings many have in mind.

"Is there potential to improve programs for students without increasing the cost to the taxpayers through regionalization? Yes. I would say that should be what drives the discussion. Improved programming at a reasonable cost," he said. "I'm afraid people would be very disappointed if they go into this looking for huge cost savings."

Dimbauer said that the impact of the state budget problems will be felt by school districts over the next few years, and he has contacted local legislators to discuss the issue.

"It's going to take more than one year to get this straightened out," he said. "I can imagine it taking two or three or four years."

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.