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Scarborough, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth schools hit hard by state aid curtailment

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Scarborough, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth schools hit hard by state aid curtailment

CAPE ELIZABETH — Schools in South Portland, Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth are among those bearing the brunt of the latest curtailment in state aid to education.

Gov. John Baldacci's Nov. 20 executive order to cut $63 million from the state budget means Maine public schools will have to make additional cuts to meet a $38 million shortfall in the state's general purpose aid to education.

The local school districts are among approximately half a dozen statewide that will experience losses of 3 percent or more.

In Cape Elizabeth, the curtailment order means cutting $621,000 from the current school budget, a 3.5 percent reduction.

Superintendent of Schools Alan Hawkins said he was originally expecting to lose about $421,000 in state funds, but knew the cuts would increase as the 2009-2010 school year progressed. By the beginning of November, Hawkins said the reduction was nearing $590,000, but the order finally came in at $621,000.

Due to the reduction, School Board members met early Monday to discuss ways to handle the additional loss of state aid. School administrators, members of the Town Council and interested residents were present at the meeting.

School Board Chairwoman Trish Brigham said it is necessary to reach out to other school districts to find efficiencies. The board also approved a resolution asking the governor and Legislature to maintain a minimum state funding level, re-evaluate the curtailment to reduce the impact on education programs and support state goals by rewarding, not penalizing, school districts that are high performing with low administration costs.

They said they want state leaders to recognize that strong schools will be critical to the economic recovery of the state, and urged residents to contact legislators and the governor to express how urgent the funding crisis is and how inequitable the cuts appear.

"This resolution can be used in other districts as a template," School Board member Rebecca Millett said. "Working as a coalition, many school districts can advocate for public education in Maine."

In anticipation of the loss of funding, the School Department imposed a freeze on non-essential spending in September that has saved nearly $104,000. Hawkins said the district can find further savings by using $70,000 from a contingency fund, $32,500 in debt service and $54,000 from personnel attrition. If the board approves a furlough day, the schools could save an additional $80,000, he said.

The School Board can also allocate undesignated funds to offset the curtailment by using $280,000 in Medicaid funds, $73,000 in bond refinancing premiums and $292,000 from a fund balance.

But Hawkins said there have been unanticipated expenses from staff retirements and special education costs.

"I would move very cautiously as we go forward," Hawkins said Monday morning. "These figures can change."

Because the curtailment order will affect the community and municipality as well as the schools, the board agreed that a Curtailment Committee is necessary to address the long-term needs of the town. According to Hawkins, the committee will include Millett and Katharine Ray of the School Board, Town Council Chairwoman Anne Swift-Kayatta and Councilor Sara Lennon; Councilor-elect Frank Governali as a representative of the Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation; Dwight Ely as a member of the Cape Elizabeth Educational Administrators Association, and a student representative.

The group will meet Monday, Nov. 30, then hold a public session on Tuesday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. in the council chambers to discuss recommendations for the remaining school year. They will complete their recommendations to the School Board by Jan. 15, 2010.

The School Board will also meet with Legislators to discuss the funding formula, and there will be a meeting of Cumberland County superintendents with Education Commissioner Susan Gendron on Dec. 10 at Westbrook High School.

"We don't understand why Cape Elizabeth is one of only a few districts statewide that have been hit so hard," Hawkins said Wednesday morning. "Many other schools seem to be below 3.5 percent."

Scarborough's curtailment of $1.1 million represents a 3.8 percent reduction in state and locally approved spending.

According to Superintendent of Schools Davis Doyle, under the formula used by the state to determine the reductions, South Portland, Scarborough and Portland make up 13 percent of the total reduction statewide, while combined enrollment of the three districts is only 6.5 percent of the state's total.

"Sen. (Justin) Alfond (D-Portland) requested the Department of Education look at (the funding cuts) with a maximum percentage any one system could lose, but that apparently did not happen," Doyle said.

The Scarborough School Department previously froze purchasing while it waited for the state to act and is now re-examining everything to make up the difference, Doyle said. Perhaps the only bright spot is the discovery by the town's finance director that Capital Improvement Program funds that were bonded, but not used, can be put back into the general fund to pay debt service, he said.

He said the School Board has been going through the budget and has cut equipment purchases and severely limited travel and field trips.

"At some point, we will try to sit down with the Town Council and talk to them about helping us fill the gap between savings we've found and money we have to come up with," Doyle said.

But the problem, he acknowledged, is that the council does not have a lot of financial help to give them. And Doyle expects state aid next fiscal year will be significantly less than this year.

"There is no impact to personnel this year," he said. "But if what is coming is what they're predicting (for next year), that would clearly impact personnel."

For South Portland, the loss is more than $1.2 million and a 3.4 percent reduction of total state and local approved spending.

The School Board planned for the curtailment by freezing all non-essential spending, including professional development, travel, general and instructional supplies, books, audio/visual and technology supplies, equipment, field trips, dues and fees and non-essential overtime, South Portland Superintendent Suzanne Godin said in an e-mail.

"It was clear early on that freezing the budget alone would not result in the desired savings," Godin said. "Therefore, I convened a Curtailment Task Force to discuss possible strategies for addressing the anticipated reduction in the current year's GPA."

Godin said she would review the panel's recommendations at a special School Board meeting on Dec. 7. Though the district has looked at many areas to achieve savings, she said she does not anticipate layoffs as a result of this latest curtailment. 

Peggy Roberts and Randy Billings contributed to this report. Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net.