The art room at Presumpscot Elementary School sits empty on Aug. 31. School districts across Maine are starting to prepare budgets for the next fiscal year, without a large influx of federal dollars that have helped pay for staff and new programs. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer, file

As federal pandemic relief money runs out, schools in Maine are hurtling toward a fiscal cliff that has K-12 leaders worried about how they will fund programs, employees and school maintenance in the coming years.

“I think it’s going to be a challenging year,” said Scott Porter, superintendent of the Machias area school district. “How could it not be?”

The federal government flooded K-12 public schools with $190 billion over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maine school districts received almost $600 million. Schools used that money to build and expand summer, after-school and tutoring programs, renovate buildings, hire staff and update curriculums.

But now that money is almost gone – it must be entirely allocated by Sept. 30, 2024. School districts are beginning to shape up their budgets for the next fiscal year – the first since the pandemic without federal relief dollars – and the absence of that funding is going to have a significant impact.

“Districts are going to have a hard time doing what they did the year before – keeping staff, giving staff raises like they expected, offering all the same programs,” said Marguerite Roza, a research professor and director of Georgetown University’s Edunomics Lab, a research center focusing on education finances and policy.

“Likely in 2024-2025, school districts will feel frustrated that they don’t have everything they had the year before.”


It’s too soon to say exactly what will be cut. Roza says layoffs are likely.

The impact will vary by district depending on whether they spent the money on recurring costs, like staff and programming, or one-time, temporary expenses. For districts that spent their relief money on one-time expenses like renovations, it will be easier to bounce back. Those that hired staff will either have to ask taxpayers to help pay for those positions, or lay off employees, said Steven Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association.

“People are cautiously optimistic in terms of how they’re going to make things work,” Bailey said.

But all districts are facing some amount of financial pressure. They are all contending with inflation and some have lower student enrollment, both of which further constrain budgets. At the same time, challenges from the pandemic such as chronic absenteeism, learning loss and behavioral issues remain.

Generally, school districts spend around 80% of their budgets on faculty and staff. That means that as they try to slim down, they will likely have to get rid of personnel.

Portland Public School District Superintendent Ryan Scallon said he’s especially concerned about cutting positions.


“Because the majority of costs are personnel it’s hard to picture how to balance the budget without there being some personnel cuts,” he said. “I think that is the hardest piece. We have great folks that work in our district and we may lose some of them over this.”

Roza said school districts should start discussions with their communities sooner rather than later about what they’re expecting from the budget season. Learning loss recovery programs, such as summer school and tutoring, could also be on the chopping block. She said school districts should ensure they continue to focus on student needs by being thoughtful about what they’re cutting.

“Rather than cutting the last thing added, think about what is working and keep it,” she said. “Absolutely keep what is working.”

Scallon said his district is working to do just that by considering its budget alongside its strategic plan, which it is currently revising.

“We are going to make sure we’re investing and spending our money on those things that have the most impact,” he said.

Still, he said he’s worried about the likely cuts now that the district has budgeted almost all of the nearly $28 million in COVID-19 relief funding it received.


Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia is less concerned about the upcoming budget season, partially because the district has already ended programs and other pandemic recovery practices.

During the pandemic, Westbrook shrunk class sizes so students could have more attention from the adults in the room. Since then, they’ve moved back to typical class sizes, said Lancia. The district has let go of education technicians and other school staff it hired during the pandemic.

“We’ve done a really careful job of using emergency funds,” Lancia said. “We used it well but didn’t necessarily rely on it.”

Federal pandemic relief money was meant to help schools weather the storm of COVID-19 and its aftermath. But while the money is about to run out, students are still struggling.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Maine student test scores have plummeted, chronic absenteeism has skyrocketed, graduation rates have dropped and more students than ever are struggling with their mental health.

The continued challenges that students are facing make the budget cliff particularly hard to stomach, said Porter, the Machias superintendent.


“Students are struggling more than ever,” he said. “It’s especially true for our youngest students – prekindergarten and kindergarten students.”

Porter said Machias could benefit from keeping the staffing levels and programming that the $6 million of COVID-10 relief funding allowed the district to provide over the past few years.

“It’s our hope that it (the funding cliff) won’t impact students,” Porter said. “We will do what we can.”

But Porter, who sits on the Maine School Superintendents Association executive committee and has been a superintendent for 20 years, said he believes Maine’s school districts will be fine.

“We’ve seen rough times before and this will be a rough time. In the end we’ll get through it and we’ll keep educating students like we always have,” he said.

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