June 14, 2013






Calais confronting $786,000 hike in school local share
 by Lora Whelan


    AOS #77 Superintendent Jim Underwood did not mince words about the state of the Calais school budget while attending what was most likely his last meeting with the Calais School Committee on the evening of June 4. "We have cut and cut," he told the committee, the city councillors present and the public. "I have warned everyone that in not too long we would have a $400,000 shortfall, and it's here."
     He explained that for a number of years the City of Calais has contributed less than the local minimum share to the school budget, as allowed by a waiver given by the state. As a result, he explained, the school budget has suffered to the point of now being headed over "a cliff." He stressed, "We are $750,000 short in local tax revenue." He added, "I just cannot believe that you [the council] won't come to the local minimum." As the budget stands the local share of the budget would be about $1.9 million, an increase of $786,000 over last year's budget.
     The local minimum share is determined as a percentage of the total budget after the state subsidy is known. Two factors determine the state subsidy: student enrollment and property valuations. Under the state's Essential Programs and Services (EPS) formula there is a minimum amount of 45% of local share that each municipality is supposed to raise, usually through property tax revenue, in order to receive state subsidies. Many communities choose to contribute more than the required minimum of the 45% of local share. However, since 2010 a waiver has allowed local districts to raise only the percentage that the state raises for EPS funding. At present, the state raises only about 83% of its required share of 55%.
     Among the 27 school districts in the state that did not raise the 45% local share in 2012 was the Calais School Department. On May 30 a bill sponsored by Rep. Joyce Maker was signed into law that will ensure that local districts fully fund their local educational commitments. The bill phases out the proportional share reduction over a three‑year period starting in fiscal year 2014‑2015. Maker stated, "They are our children and the parents pay their taxes to receive a good education for them. The students don't deserve any less."
     In November 2012, the citizens of Calais took to the polls and voted on the recommendation of the council to leave AOS #77, with the primary reason given by the council as one of local control, not necessarily cost savings. The council was unhappy with the amount of time that Underwood was able to give to the city because of his responsibilities to the entire AOS. The city informed the AOS board of the decision, with the withdrawal effective at the beginning of the 2013‑2014 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
     While Underwood had not expected to be present at the June 4 meeting, he told the public that he had been asked to be there to explain the budget. "I'm glad to do it," he said. Councillors present were: President Marianne Moore, Chris Bernardini, Billy Howard and Arthur Mingo. School committee members present were: Chair James McDonald, Kathleen Caso, Lea Farrar and John Hill. Member Linda Winchester's letter of resignation was accepted by the committee at the meeting.
     Withdrawing from the AOS does not appear to have saved the Calais school system money. The proposed budget shows that the total cost of the superintendent's office will be increased by $139,573 over last year's amount of $212,577 for a total new amount of $352,150. Special education administration will also see an increase of $43,263 over last year's amount of $65,533 for a total of $108,796.
     The proposed 2013‑2014 budget, which was recommended by the school committee to go to the council with one amendment, is for a total of $8,963,585. Underwood noted that he and school staff tried their best to flat‑line the budget, but met with an impossible task. As it is, the budget is $184,268 over last year's. Underwood listed some of the reasons for the difficulty of the budget creation: a cut in intergovernmental revenue, including state share, for a total of $180,470; no fund balance to carry forward to help offset expenses C last year's balance carry‑forward helped increase revenue to the tune of $190,168; a reduction in day treatment program Medicaid reimbursement of $206,500; and a 13% increase in health insurance costs that total $211,000, among others.
     Underwood then outlined a one‑ to two‑year plan of temporary cuts that would decrease the budget by about $150,000. "If you need two years to get there [to the local minimum]," there are a few items he had found. However, he noted that he didn't recommend that the committee act on any of the suggestions. He added, "If forced to cut, the damage would be just tremendous." The cuts included the part‑time art and music positions, materials costs of $11,000 for the vocational programs, $20,000 for the truck driving program and a day treatment position at the middle school that would save $9,000. School committee members were not in favor of any of these cuts, citing a number of reasons, including the impossibility of conducting vocational programs without the necessary supplies, such as lumber. The only cut that was then amended to the budget because of a $26,000 difference in salary line item was because of a change in staffing. High school Principal Dan Cohnstaedt tendered his resignation at the meeting, effective July 15.

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