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Budget Gaps Forcing Tough Choices on Maine School Districts
01/24/2011   Reported By: Jay Field

Tonight, a school board in the western Maine community of Bethel will meet to address an unpleasant topic. The district, SAD 44, is facing a nearly $1 million budget shortfall and is considering closing two elementary schools. Districts of all shapes and sizes throughout Maine and across the nation are facing similar tough choices, as state money for education gets cut and federal stimulus dollars dry up.

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Budget Gaps Forcing Tough Choices on Maine School Listen
 Duration:
4:11

Woodstock Elementary School, where Jolene Littlehale is a teacher and the principal, has just 79 students. Littlehale says it's like one big family. "It is a place where every kid knows every kid, every parent knows every child. Big kids take care of the little kids and the parents will watch out for each other's kids at events," she says.

Woodstock's enrollment has steadily declined in recent years. It's an ironic trend--one that has cost the school district, SAD 44, badly-needed revenue, but has also created an educational cocoon made up of smaller class sizes, more personalized instruction and involved parents. They're among the things that have to be there, for kids to do well in the classroom.

"We've worked really hard to raise our test scores and get 'em up there and try to maintain them the best we can do," Littlehale says. "And the school's in really good shape that way."

Littlehale says Woodstock has repeatedly met the tougher and tougher annual learning targets schools must reach under the federal education law known as No Child Left Behind. But the environment and continuity that's contributed to this improvement is now at risk.

"Considering where we are from a fiscal point of view, I think the board is going to have to look hard at whether or not they can continue to operate one of our schools, or whether they're going to need to close one or more," says David Murphy, Superintendent in SAD 44. The rural district in and around Bethel has three elementary schools, including Woodstock, a middle school, a high school and an adult education facility.

The district is facing the loss of $600,000 of state funding and federal stimulus money, leaving it with a deficit of nearly a million dollars. So to cut costs, the school board is considering closing Woodstock and another elementary school, Andover.

"We're sort of into unchartered waters here to a certain degree," says Steve Bowen, Gov. Paul LePage's top education adviser. "I think districts got accustomed to pretty steady increases, and not too long ago, pretty dramatic increases in the state's share for schools--those increases going up every single year," he says. "And, you know, we've gotten to the point now where the economy simply can't sustain that kind of budget growth. I don't think there's a school district in the state that isn't dealing with this."

A spreadsheet put out last year by the Maine Department of Education tells the tale. Intended to help budget directors plan, it lays out the projected amount of state aid for every district for fiscal year 2011-2012. The numbers are just as bad for Maine's largest districts as they are for SAD 44. Portand could lose nearly $4 million, Bangor almost $2 million and Augusta, $1 million.

Donald Boyd says this loss of state money is hitting school districts large and small, urban and rural, all over the country. Boyd is senior fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York at Albany.

"The typical school, maybe 80 percent of its costs are compensation related," Boyd says. "And what we find are pension contributions and also retiree health care expenses are going up quite rapidly in municipal govenments and in school districts."

For the last couple years, school distircts and local governments relied, in part, on federal stimulus dollars to fill in the gaps. But that money will disappear later this year. As he prepares his budget, Steve Bowen says Gov. LePage is looking at ways to help.

But Bowen admits it won't be easy. "We want to try to get some money in there. But, as I say, there's not a lot of money out there. We're facing a budget shortfall. We're trying to do some creative things to move some money around and free up some resouces for the schools."

Any extra money LePage and his team come up with, though, is unlikely to fill every shortfall in every district. So administrators and boards of education still face unpalatable choices like layoffs, bigger class sizes and school closures in their struggle to balance the books.



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