Tradeoffs and difficult decisions have marked recent school budgets for Gardiner-based Regional School Unit 11.

Now, several rounds of budget cuts have taken their toll.

“There just isn’t a lot to cut from,” said Business Manager Andrea Disch. “We are bare bones.”

Several school districts in central Maine are bracing for an especially difficult year as several painful factors converge, including a reduction in a state subsidy for many districts, the end of the federal stimulus lifeline and a change in MaineCare reimbursement rules.

Disch said she and other officials had hoped the stimulus money would get them through to the economic recovery.

Schools received federal stimulus money through the general American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and the Education Jobs Fund, created in 2010.

“We were hoping that revenues would have increased through the state, but that’s not happening as well,” Disch said. “It’s very tough, and I don’t know when we’re going to see better times.”

Maine’s school districts received $39 million in Education Jobs money last year, but few spent the money at the time, according to Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Rier. Instead, schools across the state saved about $33 million to support their budgets this year, but that money must be spent by September.

“That won’t be available to them next year, and neither will any of the other (stimulus) funds that were available,” Rier said.

RSU 11 received about $230,000 in Education Jobs money. Other districts in central Maine received $500,000 — holes that they must now fill.

State funding down

School administrators are beginning to dig into recently released projections of how much they’ll receive in state subsidy next year, even though those amounts aren’t final.

“It could change because the Legislature hasn’t enacted anything yet,” Rier said. “Once they pass the budget to confirm (general purpose aid) amounts, then we’ll issue final subsidy amounts.”

Preliminary state education aid amounts for each school district, released earlier this month, are “meant to help school districts understand where they are,” Rier said.

The state’s formula for the cost of an adequate education determined that expenses would be higher for a variety of reasons, including the reduction in MaineCare money schools received for special education services, Rier said. As a result, the state increased the required local mill rate, which means taxes will be higher even if a district’s budget is unchanged from last year.

According to the preliminary information, most school districts in central Maine will receive less state subsidy in 2012-13. The exceptions are Fayette, Winthrop, Wales-based RSU 4, Farmington-based RSU 9 and Skowhegan-based RSU 54.

Despite the sharp funding reductions that some districts face, local school officials say they are not yet considering closing school buildings to save on costs. In the face of dwindling revenues, central Maine school districts have closed at least a half-dozen school buildings in the last two years.

Some districts will see only a minor impact under the funding estimates, including Hallowell-based RSU 2, which is projected to lose $51,000 in state subsidy.

“It’s not as hard as some of our neighboring districts are getting hit,” said Superintendent Virgel Hammonds. “But, nonetheless, $50,000 is $50,000.”

RSU 2 also will lose about $400,000 in Education Jobs money, Hammonds said, and the district’s five towns are receiving $3 million less in state subsidy than when the school district first formed in 2009.

RSU 9 is projected to receive $2.9 million in additional state subsidy next year, a 19 percent increase. But Rier said that is because of — and offset by — the $2.6 million additional the district must pay in debt for the construction of W.G. Mallett School in Farmington, which opened in September.

The three towns of Alternative Organizational Structure 92 — Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow — were hit especially hard.

Vassalboro would receive $397,000 less, or 10 percent; Waterville $387,000 less, or 3 percent; and Winslow $738,000 less, or 10 percent.

Winslow’s loss would, however, be offset by a $445,000 reduction in debt, Rier said.

AOS 92 Finance Director Paula Pooler said that school officials are trying to figure out why the towns would receive so much less money, and how it might affect the schools.

“Obviously, it’s devastating for AOS 92, but we’re just looking into that now,” she said.

Filling the gap

Augusta schools and Whitefield-based RSU 12 are among the other districts that would feel the biggest state funding pinch.

RSU 12’s reduction in state subsidy is only $132,000, or 1.3 percent, but the district must pay an additional $504,000 in debt because of the construction of the new Chelsea School, which opened this year. RSU 12 also will lose about $450,000 in Education Jobs money.

To keep taxes as low as possible, Superintendent Greg Potter has recommended reducing the budget gap through reorganizing the district to make better use of space. The plan involves closing Somerville Elementary School and moving several offices and educational programs.

Potter estimates that the reorganization would save more than $300,000.

Skowhegan-based RSU 54 has had to take dramatic steps to cut the budget in recent years, such as the 2010 closure of Cornville Elementary.

But Superintendent Brent Colbry hopes that won’t be necessary this year. The district’s preliminary state subsidy amount is up $766,000 for next year, more than 4 percent. Colbry said the schools have had to spend more on special education services in recent years, which appears to account for most of the increase.

Combined with other changes, RSU 54 will probably have a budget gap of $300,000 to $500,000, Colbry said.

That’s far better than the $1 million or $2 million gaps of recent years.

“The amount of money that’s on the printout at the moment was better than I thought it was going to be based on an earlier estimate,” Colbry said. “We’re cautiously optimistic, and we hope it stays.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

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