A flat school district budget could seriously undermine the education of students of Fairfield-based School Administrative District 49, the superintendent warns.
“The board is grappling with that now,” Superintendent Dean Baker said Thursday. “We’re trying very hard to minimize the local property tax impact and that has created objectives that clash.”
Over the last decade, the district has lost more than 50 positions and several academic programs, Baker said, and he doesn’t see that trend ending any time soon.
Baker said he’s not sure what will number come out of the current round of discussions, but his guess is a proposal for something between a flat budget of $24.8 million and a 2 percent increase.
Any scenario within that range could cause the district to see more layoffs and reductions in both academic and cocurricular activities, Baker said. “Several position eliminations are very likely,” he said.
Baker said that, for the first time in decades, students in the district’s towns of Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield are in danger of getting an education that is not as good as the one their parents got.
“We’ve lengthened our bus rides and reduced the number of stops,” he said. “Home economics used to be taught in junior and senior high school and it’s now completely gone.”
The loss of the home economics program is an example of what Baker called narrowing, the paring down of the school’s offerings to a few core state-mandated classes that have little room for student enrichment.
Some of the reasons for the district’s budget crisis are new this year. Baker said health insurance costs have spiked 9.5 percent this year, while state subsidies have been reduced by about $75,000.
Other factors, he said, will continue to affect the district’s bottom line year after year, as in the case of a shift in teacher retirement costs from the state to the district that first took effect last July.
Much of the reason for SAD 49′s budget woes is the retirement shift, Baker said, which cost $326,000 in the current year and will cost another $290,000 next year. “The two years together, it’s about $600,000,” he said.
The idea to permanently shift the retirement costs onto the local districts was made under the leadership of former Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, who stepped down in September to take a national post with the Council of Chief State School Officers. State officials at the time said the shift was necessary to avoid further department aid cuts.
The two-year $6.3 billion state budget, approved last summer, included a shift of $29 million in teacher retirement costs to school districts effective last July. It was paired with an increase in state funding for schools, but the net effect was a loss, with some districts being harder-hit than others. When it passed the Legislature in the state’s biennial budget, legislators touted the partial offset of the increase in education funding, but Baker said it’s a temporary solution to a bigger problem.
“It’s like if I told you, you have to pay my mortgage from now on, but next year, I’ll give you half the money,” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s a perfect analogy, but that’s how it feels.”
Other districts were also hit hard by the cost shift.
Nokomis-based Regional School Unit 19 took on an added $700,000 in costs, according to Superintendent Gregory Potter, while Portland’s school district paid an estimated $1.3 million. For Pittsfield-based School Administrative District 53, the burden was $95,000, but it received about $100,000 in additional state subsidies, so it actually benefited slightly.
In the neighboring Regional School Unit 18 district, which had about $370,000 in added costs, Superintendent Gary Smith said he agrees that local districts should pay the retirement costs of their teachers but disagreed with the way it was implemented.
“I know it was a cost shift but I really think that cost should have been a local one anyway,” Smith said. “What got you was, it happened in one fell swoop. I would have much preferred a transitional period.”
Baker said that the long term trend has been a reduction in state support and an increase in state requirements.
“About the only thing that hasn’t gone away are mandates,” he said.
The SAD 49 school board is expected to finalize a proposal within the next several weeks, for presentation to voters during a district-wide referendum in June.
Its budget has fluctuated since the onset of the recession several years ago. In 2009, district voters approved an estimated $23.5 million budget. In 2010, the budget declined by $864,000, to $22.9 million, on a 2,521-993 vote. In 2011, it increased to $23.2 million, and in 2012, it increased again, to about $23.8 million.
Last year, voters approved an increase of 4.35 percent, or a little over $1 million, on a 587-432 vote. Baker said last year that increase was driven largely by the teacher retirement cost shift and by a need for overdue building repair projects that would become more costly if delayed.