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Maine Schools Struggle with Budgets as Classes Loom
07/26/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

With the start of classes just over a month away, some school districts in Maine are still struggling to get budgets approved for the upcoming academic year. On the midcoast, voters are being asked to approve the restoration of more then $300,000 to the budget in RSU 13 - a move that would raise property taxes in Rockland and Owls Head. And then there's the impasse in Auburn, where voters - angry over proposed property tax increases - just defeated a school budget for the second time in just under six weeks. As Jay Field reports, district officials plan to send a new budget proposal to the city's school committee that saves money by cutting salaries instead.

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Katy Grondin, the superintendent in Auburn, says there was a lot of frustration in the room when the school committee met earlier this week. Grondin says the decision by local voters to reject a budget with a property tax increase - for the second time in a row - leaves the Auburn schools with difficult choices.

In the short term, "We're taking $544,000 out of the salary lines," Grondin says.

To get to a zero balence on its next budget proposal, the district will also have to take $1 million out of its assets. But that would create an even bigger problem next year and beyond. Back in the spring, the Legislature passed a law requiring municipalities to begin contributing more money, under the state school funding formula. The new budget proposal Auburn is considering would leave the city paying nearly $3 million less toward education than the state requires.

Until now, districts paying less than their required share have been getting waivers. But next year, Grondin says Auburn will have to make up a third of this deficit, even as it struggles with already depleted cash reserves and a local citizenry that has little interest in paying more property taxes.

"Long term, it's a very challenging moment," she says.

The Auburn School Committee is expected to vote on the new budget proposal on Wednesday. It it passes, it would go to the city council for approval on Aug. 5, with a third referendum potentially scheduled for Aug. 20. Jim Rier oversees school finance in his job as a Deputy Commissioner at the Maine Department of Education.

"The law requires them to go through the process of having the legislative body approve the budget first that board proposes - the school board proposes," Rier ssays.

So Rier says this process will repeat itself, over and over, until Auburn voters finally sign off on a school budget they can live with. Rier says districts ususally get a budget through by the second go around. He says Auburn doesn't face any immediate problems because it doesn't have a new plan in place yet.

"There are sections of the law that allow them to operate now, without having an approved budget, based upon what they've already had legislative body approval for," he says. "But that's only a temporary allowance for them to be able to pay teachers and operate, for instance."

Rier says the situation becomes more problematic if it drags into the fall. "It gets more difficult as you go past November, because, when there finally is a budget approved by the voters, that will be the budget that's in place for the year. So they will have to be extremely cautious as they go further down that timeline," - to make sure that what they've been spending along the way lines up with the financial blueprint that's eventually approved by Auburn voters.


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