Vacant school positions in South Portland will go unfilled. Biddeford won’t fund school capital improvements or offer vacation week programming. And in Portland, a Spanish language program has been eliminated and spending on athletics is down.
All over Maine, school districts are tightening their belts in response to the coronavirus by developing more conservative budgets that hold the line on spending while also anticipating new pandemic-related costs. Superintendents say they are also bracing for a possible curtailment in state education subsidies later this year because of a loss of state revenue.
“At a time when revenues to support education are more and more uncertain, i.e. we likely will get less, COVID-19 will make whatever we’re able to do next year more expensive than we anticipated,” South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said. “That is a tough nut to crack.”
Superintendents, school boards and town councils have been grappling with school budgets in the midst of the pandemic. In many districts, superintendents reworked budget proposals at the request of elected officials who want to avoid tax increases that will put pressure on residents who have taken a financial hit because of the coronavirus.
Now voters in many of those communities will decide whether to support the budgets in the July 14 election.
“It was a budget process like no other,” said Jeremy Ray, the superintendent of Biddeford schools.
When Biddeford started the budget process back in winter, the economy was doing quite well and the school department was looking forward to a budget that included a number of capital improvements and new positions that would have required a 3.5 percent increase for taxpayers, Ray said. Then the pandemic hit.
“The brakes got put on real quick. We had to transform things pretty quickly,” Ray said.
The revised budget of $39.2 million is up only 0.8 percent from the previous year and does not require a tax increase.
To get to that point, Ray took about $200,000 in capital expenses out of his proposed budget, along with $100,000 for software and supplies. Wage increases for central office employees are on hold and Ray was not able to add a math teacher at the high school and literacy education technicians in the district.
But he did include funding for two elementary school teachers to address class size increases and resiliency coordinators at three schools to support the social and emotional needs of students.
“We had to look at the ability to bring the budget in line to a place that (has) minimal impact on the tax rate while at the same time recognizing that our students would probably come back to us with more needs than when they left,” Ray said.
Ray said he and other local superintendents have their eyes on Augusta and economic forecasting the state is doing this summer, which they think could lead to a curtailment in state education subsidies. A curtailment takes legislative action and would be unlikely to happen until later in the year, Ray recently told Biddeford city councilors.
The South Portland education budget was cut by $1.1 million after it was reviewed because of the economic impact of the coronavirus. The budget was pared down to bare necessities and contractually required expenditures with as little new spending as possible. Open positions may go unfilled.
“We started out with a larger budget and ended with a smaller budget because we knew the taxpayers really could not afford as much of an increase as we were originally proposing,” said Kunin, the South Portland superintendent.
But the $53.6 million South Portland budget does include funding for an additional nurse, who Kunin said will be needed when students and staff are able to return to in-person learning. There are likely to be extra costs for transportation to properly space students and for personal protective equipment.
“We’re already looking at areas of the budget that we could hold back on in case we have unanticipated costs around the pandemic,” Kunin said.
In Portland, voters will consider a $119.9 million education spending plan that does not increase taxes and was backed by the City Council. The original budget called for a 3 percent increase in the school tax rate, but was pulled back in an effort to control spending during the pandemic.
“This budget does not have a tax levy and I think that is important for the taxpayers of Portland, especially this year, but it came with some pain for the school board,” City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. said when the council approved the budget on June 15.
To keep costs down, Superintendent Xavier Botana eliminated four full-time Spanish language teaching positions for fourth and fifth grades, cut three high school teaching positions and one custodial position, and reduced athletic funding by $140,000. But Botana did retain funding for expanded special education services for students on the autism spectrum and to expand pre-kindergarten programming.
In Scarborough, the Board of Education is asking voters to approve a budget that avoids layoffs and includes funding for pandemic-related expenses, but will require a tax increase of 1.24 percent when combined with the municipal budget. The combined $70 million school and town budget would add 18 cents to the tax rate, or an extra $45 on the tax bill of a $250,000 home.
“Providing safe schools during the pandemic will certainly come at a cost. The budget as it stands today will provide $533,820 in funding for these added expenses,” the board wrote. “While we are still in the planning process, we expect this number will grow, possibly significantly.”
Local school districts will be able to cover some of those extra pandemic-related expenses using money awarded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, but more federal help will be needed, said Kunin, in South Portland.
In Portland, $1.9 million in CARES Act money will be used to cover the cost of custodial services. South Portland plans to use its roughly $516,000 allocation for extra nurses, PPE, extra cleaning equipment and staff, and to cover losses in the nutrition program. In Biddeford, $500,000 from the CARES Act will be used to help cover a variety of costs the district could incur, including reconfiguring nurses offices and buying PPE for staff and students.
A lot of that money will go “toward those costs while trying to balance what’s in the local budget and being prepared for what the fall may look like,” said Ray, the Biddeford superintendent.