OXFORD – A hiring and spending freeze has been implemented to address what appears to be a $800,000 or more hit to the SAD 17 school budget due to state funding cutbacks.

“This does not look to be a short-term problem for just this year,” School Superintendent Mark Eastman warned the board of directors Monday night.

Eastman said the district will make no new staff hires, including a $25,000 math teacher the board approved hiring earlier this month to address underperforming math scores at the middle school level. Only nonpermanent employees, who will have no benefits, will be used. Additionally there will be a spending freeze on everything except mandatory issues such as health and safety issues, graduation and certain mandatory special education services.

The action includes a delay on the proposed biomass energy project that was expected to save the district thousands of dollars in energy costs.

Calling it “devastating” to the district budget, Eastman told the board that the final impact could be as much as $1.6 million over the next six months because of the high percentage of money SAD 17 receives from the state.

The move to freeze staff and spending comes on the heels of Gov. John Baldacci’s budget curtailment plan to address a $100 million to $150 million deficit in the state’s General Fund this fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009. Because the Department of Education accounts for nearly 40 percent of the state’s General Fund expenditures, schools need to recommend $54.7 million in curtailments.

“The districts that can least afford to accommodate it will be hardest hit,” said Eastman. SAD 17 faces a large cut because the state funds 58 percent of its $35 million budget. Some districts are not funded so heavily by the state. South Portland will see only an approximate $200,000 cut in its $39 million budget because it is subsidized with a broad commercial and industrial tax base, Eastman said.

With contracts and programs budgets already firmly in place, Eastman said the ramifications are wide ranging for SAD 17.

The next step, said Eastman, will be to wait for the governor to announce his final curtailment numbers on Dec. 3. At that time, the school budget committee will meet, and final recommendations will be made to the full board of directors at its Dec. 15 meeting.

If the curtailment number is at least $800,000 and no other funding sources are available locally, Eastman said there will be no choice but to look at current staff reductions.

“Certainly everything is on the table,” he said.

Other areas that have been cut in previous curtailment situations included activity bus runs, field trips, the use of substitutes and staff development programs.

In a letter to school superintendents last week, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said the latest projections for the current fiscal year indicate that state revenues will be $100 to $150 million below expectations and there is a “a strong possibility” revenues will drop even further before the fiscal year ends June 30.

“These reductions will cut deeply,” warned Gendron.

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