Falmouth institutes voluntary pay-to-play; curtailment rattles area school budgets

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FALMOUTH — The School Department is requesting immediate, voluntary financial support from parents of students who participate in sports and co-curricular activities – an expense that costs the schools about $700,000 per year – to help offset a $702,000 cut in state education funding.

The reduction is about $40,000 more than the district expected, interim Superintendent Barbara Powers said Monday, and added there is every indication there will be an additional curtailment of a similar amount after the first of the year.

Falmouth’s action came after Gov. John Baldacci’s on Nov. 20 issued an executive order to cut $63 million from the state budget. Cuts to the state’s general purpose aid to schools could be reduced nearly $38.1 million.

For school districts throughout the area, the announcement means substantial reductions midway through the school year. Some school districts will be forced to use contingency funds to offset the the reductions, others will implement spending freezes to save additional funding. 

Falmouth is suggesting payments of $25 for one or more activity and $50 per sport, beginning with winter sports. In addition, in a letter she wrote to students’ families on Friday, Powers said the schools would welcome contributions to offset for other students, too.

“We will also solicit corporate scholarship sponsors,” she said.

Though the fees are voluntary for the remainder of this school year, at a recent School Board workshop, public support from attendees was strong for a suggestion to implement mandatory activity fees beginning next fall.

The town’s current $24.5 million school budget was crafted with the expectation of $5.6 million in state education funding. But the curtailments have prompted school officials to examine every line item and look at some changes to the way the district operates. Powers said. They have already proposed immediate cuts of about $400,000 that will affect all four school’s spending on textbooks, travel, field trips, supplies and equipment.

Building maintenance and repair will also take a hit, causing officials to “cross our fingers hard and hope there isn’t anything extraordinary that comes up,” Powers said.

New hires at lower salaries than retiring teachers will also help reduce the gap, she said.

The district may also access a $670,000 balance currently in undesignated general funds, as well as a portion of its capital reserve account, Director of Finance and Operations Dan O’Shea said Monday.

“We’re trying to do it this year without having to go to personnel reductions,” O’Shea said. “We’ll just monitor from now to the end of the year -like last year.”

Teacher contract negotiations will begin in December, Powers said, but she would not speculate on how or if the budget cuts will affect the process.

‘It will be OK’

In Yarmouth, Superintendent Judy Paolucci said the School Board expected to lose about $500,000 and found out on Friday the schools will lose $519,500.

“It has not been easy finding out how much our funds will be reduced, but we are meeting with every school principal and the business manager and will make it work,” Paolucci said. “We are pretty close to finding the savings, and although it is difficult, it will be O.K.”

Paolucci said the school district will use $85,000 in reserve funds and find savings by not replacing retired and resigned employees. She said they will not take any furlough days, but will cut professional development days and conference fees. There will be no staff cuts before the school year ends, she said.

Paolucci said the $520,000 reduction represents 2.5 percent of the total school budget.

“We are taking a really big hit,” she said. “But we are lucky to have the support of parents, the PTO and the town. We will find a way to get by.”

Yarmouth can expect to have nearly $1.2 million in reductions next year, she said.

‘Significant reductions’ ahead

Superintendent Shannon Welsh of Regional School Unit 5, said the Freeport-Pownal-Durham school district expected a $658,000 reduction in state funding, and was informed Friday the reduction would be only $652,000. But there are dark clouds on the horizon.

Welsh said she expects an additional $1.2 million reduction for the 2010-2011 school year on top of the most recent $658,000 cut. RSU 5 will hold community discussions on ways to generate revenue and produce savings in the coming school year, she said.

“Our goal is to save the filled positions, and not lay anyone off before the end of the school year,” Welsh said. “Going forward, we will have to make significant reductions.”  

For now, RSU 5 has already implemented a spending freeze for all supplies except for essentials and is approving new spending on a case-by-case basis, Welsh said.

She said in part through the consolidation process and in part through retirements and resignations, the district saved about $142,000 in salary and benefits by shifting nearly 50 positions. An estimated $117,000 will be retained by the district because 13 additional Durham students will be attending Freeport High School, instead of paying tuition to schools outside the district.

SAD 51, Chebeague

School Administrative District 51 will take a cut of nearly $506,000, a 2 percent reduction of the total state and local-approved spending. Superintendent Bob Hasson said last week he expected a curtailment of about that amount, and that the district is dealing with the loss by using contingency funds and a budget freeze on items such as professional learning and some field trips.

Chebeague Island faces a reduction of nearly $7,300, or less than 1 percent of its spending.

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