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Maine School Districts Brace for $12.5M in Funding Cuts
12/28/2012   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

As part of Gov. Paul LePage's $35.5 million curtailment order, schools will absorb almost a third of the cuts. And that will hit many communities hard. Even some school superintendents who planned for the loss say the cutbacks are eroding public confidence in the state's ability to pay its bills. But Republicans who supported the curtailment point out that school departments are still receiving more state funding than they did a year ago. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Faced with closing a revenue shortfall with only six months left in the current budget cycle, Gov. Paul LePage was forced to take aim at the General Purpose Aid account that provides state funding for more than 200 Maine school departments. Communities across the state will now have to absorb a funding cut of a little more than $12.5 million. But as Sawin Millet, the governor's chief of finance says, it's not as though Maine school districts weren't forewarned.

"Having three, four, five, six months of planning opportunity, many of them had already begun freezing discretionary spending, delaying purchases - I think most superintendents had already begun planning on this eventuality," Millett says. "The feedback we've gotten is that in many cases, they expected it would be much worse."

But for some superintendents, Millet's rationalization is painfully illogical. Frank Sherburne is superintendent of schools for SAD 6 in the Buxton area.

"His statement that, you know, there's a benefit to this because it's less than what was projected - any amount that you cut from education after you have given a proposal hurts," Sherburne says.

Sherburne says he and his school committee prepared for a possible state curtailment by building contingencies into his budget. SAD 6 lost about $290,000 in state funding as the result of the state reduction - the third in five years. The end result, Sherburne says, is a growing sense that the state's financial assumptions are not working.

"There ought to be greater trust in how the state is calculating and projecting revenue," Sherburne says. "We're held very accountable as superintendents and as school districts to our budget and maintaining our budget and projecting a budget that's going to be applicable to a fiscal year. It seems that as though the state doesn't have that same ability to project and make accurate projections to meet the needs that they have obligated themselves to."

"What I hear over and over is that people don't trust the funding formula," says Maine Senate President Justin Alfond. "They always feel they should be getting more or somehow the funding formula hurts rural Maine or hurts urban Maine."

Alfond, a Portland Democrat, says a pending independent evaluation of the state Essential Programs and Services formula that determines each district's share of state funding is long overdue. The report is expected next year, and Alfond says the Legislature should be able to advance legislation that will improve the system.

House Republican Leader Ken Fredette say his hometown of Newport is facing a school funding challenge. Regional School Unit 19 will meet next week to consider the possibility of seeking a union wide referendum vote on a $2.9 million loan to balance the school budget.

The union lost about $108,000 dollars as the result of the curtailment, but Fredette says that even with that reduction, the union and other Maine schools are still receiving more money from the state than they did last year.

"While school districts are going to have to factor this into their bottom line, this is certainly an increase over funding that they were seeing under the Baldacci administration earlier in the decade," Fredette says.

The Legislature's Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up education curtailment and other budget cuts next week.


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