AUGUSTA — School officials who’ve tapped into rainy day funds and made cuts to make ends meet are telling city leaders that those cash reserves are nearly tapped out and there’s nothing left to cut. 

Last year, Augusta Schools used $1.2 million from its fund balance, an account generally made up of unspent funds and used for unforeseen emergencies, to help balance the $26.3 million school budget. 

The fund had been built up to more than $2 million in recent years, in part because school officials put federal stimulus money into the fund. City officials have relied on the fund in recent years to limit the effect on taxpayers.

Interim Superintendent Jim Anastasio told city officials and the local state legislative delegation at a gathering Friday morning that the reserve money is almost used up, and no additional federal stimulus funding is coming. 

“If we build our new budget with $1.2 million from fund balance again, that will leave us with just $400,000, plus whatever else we accumulate this year,” Anastasio said. “Quite frankly, we’ve had to pay our bills by putting in some fund balance. And our ability to do that is decreasing.”

Anastasio, who before recently becoming interim superintendent was principal at Cony High School for several years, said about 50 positions have been cut from Augusta schools in recent years as revenues have shrunk and officials sought to limit the impact on taxpayers. Cuts, in recent years, have included not just teachers and other staff, but entire programs such as the alternative education, industrial technology, and business programs at Cony.

Anything that isn’t considered a core, required subject has been cut, he said. 

“You begin to say, ‘What can I live without?’ and sometimes you make mistakes,” Anastasio said. “The cumulative effect of these decisions — which were good decisions, the right decisions — is you wonder if you’re serving students the way you need to. We were in here the other day, looking at where to cut (the budget). Everybody was wincing, because we’ve cut to the bone already.”

Anastasio said the state’s Essential Programs and Services funding model, which it uses to determine how much state aid schools get, is purported to be a way to make sure state education money is distributed equitably across the state. But it is really just a complicated state funding formula that is not being fully funded by the state, he said. 

“There are not five people in the whole state of Maine who understand this formula,” state Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, said of the Essential Programs and Services funding formula, known as EPS.

State Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, said the state has contracted with a firm to re-do the EPS funding model, and a report is due on that April 1.

Anastasio said the session Friday morning was meant to inform local and state leaders about how the school budget is put together and its various funding sources, including state and federal aid, local taxes, and tuition from students attending Cony High School from surrounding towns that don’t have their own high schools.

City Councilor David Rollins said the session was helpful to him. 

“This meeting was phenomenal,” at-large councilor Rollins said. “There should be more. I don’t think we can talk enough.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647
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