LEWISTON – Recommended state cuts may mean $256,767 less for Lewiston schools, $219,098 less for Auburn schools, $65,334 less for Lisbon schools and $110,775 less for Turner-Leeds-Greene schools.
If approved by state lawmakers, those cuts will take effect in the current year — one that's half gone — leaving schools scrambling to figure out how to provide the same services with less.
Responding to revenue forecasts that show the state's income will be less than expected, Gov. Paul LePage signed an order Thursday, cutting spending by $35 million for the current fiscal year.
The bulk will come from the Department of Health and Human Services, ($13.4 million) and the Department of Education ($12.6 million), two departments whose budgets take up the bulk of the state budget.
In the last two years, LePage has increased spending for Maine schools. However, his administration's management of DHHS, which has surprised legislators with red ink when more people were kicked out of MaineCare, has come under fire by lawmakers.
Other cuts LePage is recommending include the University of Maine System ($2.5 million), the Maine Community College System ($724,000), the Department of Corrections ($2 million) and the Department of Public Safety ($427,000).
In Augusta, leadership has called the legislative Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee back on Jan. 4 – ahead of the Jan. 8 beginning session – to get an early start on reviewing LePage's budget cuts, Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said Friday.
Rotundo, House of Representatives chairwoman of the Appropriation and Financial Affairs Committee, said her committee wants to come up with a balanced budget that's fair and reasonable.
The committee needs a fuller understanding of what's being proposed, she said. Members want answers to questions like how the cuts would impact schools, the elderly, adoption services for orphans or waiting lists for people with mental illness or developmental disabilities.
In Lewiston, the projected budget cut for city schools is significant, but the number allowed Superintendent Bill Webster to breathe a sigh of relief.
“We were anticipating two or three times that,” Webster said. Still, the proposed $256,767 cut “is something that we did not budget for. We're already halfway through the year.”
With salaries and benefits costs already set, which make up the bulk of any school budget, “it's difficult to make changes midstream,” Webster said. “Had we known during the budget process, we would have budgeted accordingly.”
Lewiston schools will likely react to less money by postponing maintenance and equipment purchases. “We're also deferring some professional development that would otherwise take place.”
Renovation of the Lewiston Middle School will continue, since it was approved by taxpayers in a bond, Webster said.
Expecting the cuts in education, Webster enacted a spending freeze a month ago. The state cuts won't be finalized until approved by legislators, and the numbers could change, Webster cautioned. “I don't think we should assume this is the last word. I anticipate we will keep our spending freeze in place until we have more definite information from Augusta. We're spending only what is absolutely necessary.”
In Auburn, Superintendent Katy Grondin said she knew cuts were coming, but now she has a number which makes the cut a reality.
Beginning on Wednesday, the first day after the vacation, “we will be tackling it,” Grondin said. “It's going to take a management team” to identify how the cuts should be handled. Every account will be examined, she said. In deciding what to cut, “we will try to do the least to impact students,” Grondin said.
Grondin said she suspects the cuts in education will mean continued cuts next year, Grondin said.
The Maine Education Association said the cuts to education shortchange Maine.
“The governor ordered a third of the money needed to balance the budget should come from public schools,” read a statement from Lois Kilby-Chesley, a teacher and president of the state teachers union. “This is shortsighted, and forces communities to balance the budget on the backs of our students,” she said.