AUGUSTA — Closing Hussey Elementary School, cutting staff and programs, asking taxpayers for more money or tapping deeper into reserve money are the options school officials are considering as they struggle to close a budget gap that could range from about $1.1 million to as much as $2 million.

Superintendent James Anastasio, at a budget workshop Wednesday night, told school board members those are about the only options the school system has to make up for a $1 million drop in state funding for the city’s schools. He warned the budget gap could swell to as much as $2 million if current proposals to ask taxpayers for more money don’t meet with approval from the Augusta City Council.

Thus, painful cuts are likely.

“I caution you, don’t think your administrators can accomplish cutting somewhere between $1 million and $2 million without having a big impact on programming and people. It’s not possible,” Anastasio said. “It’s going to be devastating. It really is.”

Board members including Amanda Bartlett, an at-large member, noted the current budget, written before the $1 million drop in state funding was discovered, already seeks more money from taxpayers, so the board probably would have to try to make cuts and not seek even more from taxpayers.

Others, however, including Ward 2’s Deborah Towle, said “there is nowhere else to cut” and noted numerous cuts have been made to local school programs in recent years.

She said she would be comfortable with closing part of the gap by taking more out of the school’s fund balance, an account made up primarily of money unspent in previous years.

The current budget already used $1.6 million from the fund balance, which Anastasio said was about $3.4 million.

He warned taking more from the fund balance will leave less in the fund to help balance next year’s budget. Auditors recommend keeping money in the fund balance to deal with emergencies.

No board members spoke in favor of closing Hussey Elementary School.

Neither did any board members have specific budget cuts to recommend to close the gap.

“I don’t see how we can continue to see Augusta as a great place to bring your kids and go to school if we continue to make cuts,” said Jennifer Neumeyer, an at-large board member. “We cannot continue to cut the way we have in previous years. We can’t.”

David Sorensen, the only member of the public to comment, said school expenses seem to be increasing at the same time as student enrollments decline, a trend he said can’t continue.

“There comes a breaking point,” said Sorensen, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services who said that he was speaking as an Augusta taxpayer. “Taxpayers can only take so much.”

Board Chairwoman Kimberly Martin asked Anastasio to come back to the board with a list of options for potential cuts.

“I think that’s a good starting point,” she said. “We need to be ready to have conversations about programs and jobs, and it’s not going to be an easy conversation.”

Anastasio said cuts have been made every year of the 10 years he’s worked in Augusta’s schools. He said administrators met Wednesday to come up with recommendations for what could be cut. He said it got to the point they couldn’t recommend any further cuts because it would affect programs, and they had not yet gotten to the $1 million-plus target.

Anastasio discovered the unexpected drop in funding last week when the state Department of Education released projected state subsidy amounts for Maine schools.

Last year, Augusta got about $13.3 million in state funding, and based on initial projections, Anastasio and Business Manager Kathy Casparius included $13.3 million in state funding as revenue in the proposed budget the Augusta Board of Education is working on.

According to the preliminary state funding projections put online Feb. 19 by the state Department of Education, Augusta will get about $12.2 million in state funding based on Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed two-year state budget.

The document notes the amounts are preliminary and could change before the Legislature takes final action on the budget.

Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, a member of the legislature’s Education Committee, said Wednesday he met with the state’s deputy education commissioner this week, and she told him $535,000 of Augusta’s drop in state funding was the result of a proposed increase in the property tax rate municipalities statewide would be expected to contribute as their share. He said the change would require legislative approval, and he doesn’t know whether it will pass.

“Hopefully, you can get that reversed,” Anastasio said.

Anastasio said another large part of the drop in state funding is a $425,000 cut in state funds for the Capital Area Technical Center. He said the state money for technical centers was based on their budgets of two years ago, and three years ago Augusta cut a number of programs at the regional technical center, both to save money and to eliminate programs that no longer fit with the center’s mission. Thus the state has cut funding because those programs no longer exist.

The initially proposed budget, presented late last month, which board members are debating, is up about $1.5 million, or 5.5 percent, and would require a 7 percent property tax increase.

However, that budget was based on receiving $13.3 million in revenue from the state, not the $12.2 million Augusta’s schools now are projected to get.

Board members met for the first time since the state subsidy projections were released Wednesday.

LePage’s proposed two-year budget increases funding for schools statewide overall, according to the Department of Education. His proposed budget includes $964.1 million for general purpose aid to schools, an increase of $20.3 million from the amount appropriated by the Legislature last year. However, LePage has proposed a new way of funding the state’s charter schools, which would use up some of the general purpose aid funds.

The school budget must be presented to the city by the end of March. The school budget must be approved by the school board, then by councilors as part of the overall city budget and, ultimately, by voters in a June referendum.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj


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