Cape Elizabeth schools weather state curtailment, hope for better forecasts

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CAPE ELIZABETH — School officials say the department will be able to offset state curtailments announced late last month using contingency funds and savings from last year.

But future cuts and unexpected expenses loom ahead of the annual budget presentation next month.

Gov. Paul LePage laid out a plan to reduce spending by $35.5 million, with part of that curtailment being a $12.58 million reduction in General Purpose Aid for schools.

That cut means about a $197,000 reduction to Cape Elizabeth schools.

Michael Moore, School Board finance committee chairman, said the department will cover the shortfall by dipping into about $100,000 of its contingency fund and make up the rest from fuel and health insurance savings last year, without reducing programming.

“Based on what we’ve heard … we think we can meet that,” Moore said. “It’ll be challenging, but we feel we have the flexibility to offset that.”

One of the biggest challenges the board faces, Moore said, is the unexpected nature of the state cuts.

“The state’s commitment in allocation of funding is how we plan for the year’s budget and the visibility is deteriorating,” he said, referring to commitments the state made and then reduced. “It makes budgeting one year, or even on a longer-term basis, very challenging.”

The board is now working with legislators to improve the transparency of budgets so they can better forecast for these type of situations.

State Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, chairwoman of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said she doesn’t expect any more cuts this year, but it’s difficult to predict.

“I understand and know from working with schools that it’s difficult to plan when you don’t what’s coming down the road a year later,” she said. “But if a company has a few shortfalls, or if the economy tanks, they have to make adjustments mid-year and that’s pretty much what happens here.”

Moore contended that the notable difference between businesses and schools is that schools have a much harder time raising revenue to make up for losses.

“To be told halfway through the year that the amount you already budgeted is going to be reduced is difficult,” he said. “We’re not a business we can’t raise prices. Voters have already approved the local portion on the ballot, and then to (make further cuts) mid-year is challenging to negotiate. We’re hopeful that the state can at least fund their portion on a one-year basis.”

This year is especially challenging, Millett said, noting that state revenues have come in lower than expected, on top of a $100 million shortfall at the Department of Health and Human Services.

But, she said, a new report on the Essential Programs and Services model, due out in April, could potentially provide a better idea of how Maine’s funding compares to other states, and hopefully help prevent dramatic swings in funding from year to year.

Superintendent Meredith Nadeau said additional cuts could be damaging and that administrators are exercising caution.

“When (funding) alters along the way, it’s not as if student needs have changed to the same magnitude,” Nadeau said Thursday. “Right now, we’re going to do our best to see what the district’s needs are to best serve the students and we’ll be making adjustments as needed based on the revenue picture, but that could be coming on late. We’re doing a lot of careful planning and ‘what if’ thinking.”

Moore said the School Department is not expecting state funding to increase, but that’s a typical factor they deal with every year. Now there’s concern that expectations may be substantially changing in the future.

“Local districts might have to start to fund a portion of teachers’ retirement,” he said. “It’s shifting the state’s commitment to local districts. That’s an entire change than what’s been going on for years and years. That part of it is something we’re watching carefully.”

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.