Board to superintendent: Consider consolidation as part of cost-saving concepts
Belfast — The Regional School Unit 20 Board of Directors is facing another budget gap for the 2014-15 school year, and Finance Committee Chairman Tony Swebilius told the board Tuesday, Oct. 8, it could be as much as $2 million.
This news came less than a month after district voters passed this year's $33.4 million budget, approval that came after two previous budget proposals failed at the polls.
During his report on the Finance Committee meeting, which took place prior to the regular meeting, Swebilius said three of the district's eight towns are in arrears in their payments to the school. He said of the three, the City of Belfast alone owed the district $1.5 million as of Tuesday night.
Superintendent Brian Carpenter described the outlook for education funding in the near future as "bleak" and said the drop in income to the district would take several forms. Schools in Maine will see a $9.5 million cut to education funding due to a decision from Gov. Paul LePage to reduce that amount from General Purpose Aid in order to close the state budget gap, Carpenter said. In addition, the state Department of Health and Human Services proposed $5.7 million worth of cost reductions out of the $11.25 million that was to be cut from both the DHHS budget and money allotted for education subsidies. The problem is, Carpenter said, the state still has to find a way to make up the remainder of that $11.25 million.
"It'll almost be guaranteed that it will come back to us," said Carpenter.
And Carpenter said all the money from the casino that was supposed to boost school funding is now earmarked for reducing the state budget shortfall, too. Worst still, Carpenter said, he expects to see a curtailment of as much as $200,000 in the current year's state subsidy come February.
In addition, Carpenter reminded directors that language in the current state budget dictates that if legislation aimed at reducing the budget shortfall is not enacted into law by July 2014, the money will come from reduced revenue sharing for Maine towns.
"The towns will not get the revenue and we will not get the revenue," said Carpenter.
When addressing what that means for the 2014-15 budget building process, said Swebilius, is the district is already tasked with finding a significant amount of cost reductions.
"That could mean another $2 million in cuts to our budget," said Swebilius.
Later in the meeting, Assistant Superintendent John McDonald said district wide enrollment is down nearly 20 percent since the 2009-10 school year. The RSU now has a total of 2,338 students, a figure that is down about 550 from where it was four years ago. McDonald said the number is in line with county and state trends, and the decline is across the board for all eight towns.
In Belfast, where McDonald acknowledged there has a fair amount of new businesses moving in and growing in recent years, the trend is the same — in the fall of 2009, there were 1,024 Belfast students who attended RSU 20 schools. This fall, there were 838 Belfast youths enrolled in RSU 20 schools.
All of those factors are what led Director Debora Riley to make a motion directing Carpenter to develop concepts for possible consolidation of RSU 20 schools as a cost saving measure. Director Stephen Hopkins seconded the motion.
When it came time for discussion, Director Stephanie Wade asked the board to consider amending the motion to include consideration of social and environmental impacts of decisions directors make about the future budget in addition to economic factors.
"Otherwise we pay later in ways we haven't accounted for today," Wade said.
Director Alexa Schweikert said she agreed with Wade, but Hopkins said those factors are already considered when creating school-related concepts.
"It's not just an economic plan," he said.
Director Sharon Catus of Stockton Springs said residents in her town considered all of those aspects when discussing the eventual change of use of their elementary school last fall, a building which now serves the district as an site for a pre-K program and education-based daycare.
"And yet, the decision from this board was to do what was needed for the bottom line," she said. "The good news is that we're still standing."
And with a looming shortfall of at least $2 million for next year's budget, Catus said the board must think in a similar way.
"We can't nickel and dime. We can't cut art. We can't cut anything else," said Catus. "You either consolidate and we actually act like a district or you take away every last scrap of education that's worth going to school for."
Director David Ferguson suggested the motion also include an emphasis on enhancing educational opportunities.
When Board Chairman Tony Bagley asked Riley if she would consider the amendment, she said she assumed those factors would "be in the equation anyway" but she had no problem with adding those directives to her original motion.
After some additional discussion, directors agreed to direct Carpenter to work on cost saving concepts while also taking those specific factors into consideration.
Wade, who voted against the motion, said prior to the vote she would have difficulty voting in favor of the motion without considering alternatives to school consolidation first.
"I don't think shuffling kids around buildings and using the same industrial model of education is the answer," she said, adding she would like to see what neighboring districts are doing before committing to looking further at consolidation.
Also before the vote, Director Denise Dakin said the economy has left little money to go around for anyone, and the schools are no different.
"Something has to give," she said. "... A teacher will teach anywhere and do a fantastic job if they're good. It's not the building that teaches, it's the teacher that teaches."
In other news, the board:
* Voted against selling the former School Administrative 56 Central Office building at 6 Mortland Road to the Town of Searsport for $1. The vote was in response to an earlier request from the Searsport Board of Selectmen asking the RSU to do so;
* Approved a field trip for eighth graders at Searsport District Middle School to attend the leadership school at Camp Kieve next month, and;
* Elected Riley to serve as the RSU 20 delegate to the Maine School Boards Association.
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Tanya has been a general news reporter in Waldo County since 1997.
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