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Yarmouth avoids big changes in latest school budget proposal

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Yarmouth avoids big changes in latest school budget proposal

YARMOUTH — Despite large losses in state revenues, the School Department expects to maintain services without drastic cuts to education or a dramatic budget increase.

After a joint Town Council and School Committee meeting last month sent the budget back to the drawing board for further cuts, the groups have reached a compromise that would reduce the spending increase by about 1 percent from previous estimates.

"It looks to me like you did a really good job of minimizing the impact here, but it's not without some consequence," School Committee Finance Chairman David Ray told interim Superintendent of Schools Ron Barker at a budget workshop Tuesday night.

The budget does not require any significant cuts in programming and maintains all teaching and staff positions. It is still somewhat uncertain how much the budget will increase, because the state subsidy for funding teacher retirements is still unknown.

Without including any retirement costs paid by the district, the budget will increase 1.8 percent from this year, about the same amount that it grew a year ago.

But, if the state requires districts to pay a portion of teacher retirement costs – something the state has been solely responsible for in the past – the increase will be 3.1 percent, adding an additional $266,000 to the budget.

State education cuts left the schools facing a $400,000 revenue gap. And in addition to the cuts, the council asked the committee to flat-fund its budget to reduce the impact on taxes.

Committee members pushed back and said doing so would require severe cuts to education, because the largest expenses – teacher pay and benefits – are bound by contract and can't be adjusted in this budget cycle.

The groups agreed on a compromise target to increase the budget by 1.8 percent from last year. To reach that goal, administrators had to cut an additional $265,000 from the budget.

The cuts come from a variety of areas, notably reserve accounts and projected health insurance savings.

About $150,000 of that reduction is accounted for equally by the virtual freezing of the furniture account and by tapping into both the capital reserve account and retirement reserve account.

Barker said the capital reserve is healthy enough to sustain a loss this year and that officials predict the retirement reserve will be minimally affected because the department has few people scheduled to retire.

The department is hoping to save about $40,000 this year in health insurance costs, predicting that bidding will be more competitive based on a law change that gives the schools a better insurance rating.

Ray said he is pleased with the latest budget overall, but wary about dipping into the reserve accounts to make up for this year's losses.

"I remain very concerned about pulling out of the reserve accounts to achieve a budget number, because we are now going to be looking like we're increasing our budget when we put that in next year," he said. "It will be that much more difficult to maintain our reserve accounts (in the future)."

Herb Hopkins, School Department director of business services, said they did everything they could before drawing from the reserve accounts, but they "pulled enough rabbits out of the hat."

"I'd rather tap into turnover savings then have to cut more from the supplies account," he said. "This just shows we're really in the meat of the budget when we start cutting into these accounts."

Other reductions include savings in staff turnover and the reduction of one hour from some of bus drivers' schedules.

Barker said with some longer-term staff and faculty leaving, but not retiring, they may be able to fill their positions with new hires who will be on a lower pay scale, saving about $35,000. 

Reduction in bus driver schedules will save about $20,000 and will likely not impact operations because full-day kindergarten eliminates the need for mid-day runs.

The department is also instituting a partial budget freeze for the remainder of the school year. Barker said although it's a freeze, there will still be some flexibility.

"When people say 'budget freeze,' everything stops – and that's not the case here," he said.

Earlier areas on the chopping block included $37,000 in math textbooks for Harrison Middle School and about $28,000 to fund the Maine Learning and Technology Initiative, the state computer purchase program.

But after workshops with administrators and staff, both those items were included in the budget.

The MLTI budget, which is now about $40,000, will allow the department to purchase 800 devices, which could be computers, tablets or some other platform, for $47 each.

The committee was expected to send the budget to the council on Thursday. After that, the budget will have its first hearing combined with the town budget on April 18, followed by a second hearing and vote May 2.

The town will vote on the budget on June 12. 

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