Jenna Zemrak, a literacy teacher at Albert S. Hall School in Waterville, sets up her classroom last year. Literacy teachers are among the positions funded by COVID-era relief that is no longer available, leaving school districts to decide whether to fund the positions themselves. Morning Sentinel file photo

GARDINER – Andrea Disch, business manager of the Gardiner-area school district, has never had a budget season as difficult as the current one.    

Nor has Waterville Board of Education Chair Pam Trinward, who called this budget season very difficult.

“It’s the perfect storm,” Disch said last week, before the School Administrative District 11 board passed its $32.4 million school budget, which comes with a 9.5% increase to taxpayers.

With the expiration of COVID-era relief funding, and the rising cost of nearly everything — from salaries and insurance to all manner of supplies — school districts across central Maine are struggling to hold down taxes while raising the resources needed to teach kids still catching up from the pandemic.

At the center of budget discussions have been the positions funded by federal COVID relief, aimed at giving students more support in the classroom and beyond, using literacy coaches, interventionists, guidance counselors and others.

With that funding gone, districts had to decide whether to cut those positions, seen as critical in helping students make up the losses of the pandemic, or pay for them through local taxes.


Officials chose some combination, as proposed budgets mostly have increases of 5% to 10% to taxpayers and include cuts to several positions — the only effective way to lower spending in school budgets driven by salaries and benefits.

“We had a lot of tough conversations in the school board room regarding positions, because you can’t cut this type of money we are talking about in pencils and pens; it’s positions,” Disch said.


Rick Amero, superintendent of Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2, said the coronavirus relief money gave the school district money for resources, but now that it is gone, there is a cliff.

RSU 2 approved a $29.9 million proposed budget with a 6.09% increase to taxpayers. The increase is fueled not only by contracted salaries and insurance, but also from positions previously paid for with relief funding, such as a pre-kindergarten teacher at Dresden Elementary School and interventionists to help with behavior and learning gaps.

The state funding formula doesn’t cover the positions, either, but school administrators like Amero say they need them.


“We are still seeing the same challenges on a daily basis,” Amero said. “Resources have gone away and school districts have had to make hard choices, like repurposing previous funds and looking at every position and where enrollment changed and if we can shift some resources there.”

School Administrative District 54 in Skowhegan cut more than 20 positions, many of which were created as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The budget has an increase to taxpayers of 4%, with most of the increase in the budget due to increases in negotiated salaries and health insurance costs.

Trinward said Waterville Public Schools, where the proposed budget of $32.28 million is a 6.6% increase to the current year’s overall budget and a 4.5% increase to taxpayers, kept all seven positions funded by COVID relief money in its budget. She said the remedial positions, such as math and literacy coaches, are still needed to ensure students are caught up with their education after nearly three years of remote learning.

“They are not going to catch up in a year. It’s like the never-ending story where you are supposed to learn what you’re supposed to learn this year, but also last year. It’s going to take a couple of years,” said Trinward.

The Waterville Board of Education knew this budget year would be difficult, Trinward said, and as a result, began preparing for it last year.

“We have no new positions, no new equipment, nothing in the budget other than what we had,” Trinward said. “We saw it coming (the budget challenges), so we tried to do the best we could to prepare for it.”



Not helping matters, officials say, is the Maine school funding formula, which some consider a flawed way to determine what the state will pay for and what local districts have to pick up on their own.

In the end, they say, schools often don’t get the resources they need.

The formula takes into account student enrollment and town property valuation to determine the amount the state and municipalities pay for the school budget. If student enrollment goes down or town valuation goes up, it decreases the amount of money a school district gets from the state.

But just because a town’s valuation goes up, Disch said, doesn’t mean that the people living in town necessarily are able to contribute more to help fund their schools.

“The expectation (from the state) is that there is more money for property taxes and to pay for the local budgets,” Disch said. “But there is a huge disconnect with the valuation of someone’s home and the ability to pay more in property taxes.”

And, if a school district finds it needs to add a position the school funding formula doesn’t cover, then it is up to local taxpayers to foot the full bill.

Moving forward, Amero wonders if Maine public schools will ever get the resources they need under the current funding formula.

I love our small public schools, it’s unique in Maine and I do love it, but I wonder what the end game is if we can continue to afford our small schools we love so much,” Amero said. “Something is going to change at some point.”

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