Education officials feel push to reduce
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BY MATTHEW STONE
Staff Writer
Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 12/20/2009

AUGUSTA -- For Maine's school districts, universities and community colleges, the package of budget cuts Gov. John Baldacci announced Friday confirmed the grim news they've been bracing for throughout the fall.

The governor's plan to plug a $438 million hole in the current two-year budget cuts $73.2 million in aid to local school districts and $15.9 million in funding to the state's university and community college systems.

If lawmakers uphold the reductions, Maine's 215 school districts will lose $38 million of the state aid they've expected to balance their budgets for the current school year. Starting in July, another $35 million in cuts will take effect.

"It's pretty much what we expected," said Michael Cormier, superintendent of the Farmington-based Mount Blue Regional School District.

School superintendents have met with state education officials since the summer to decide how best to trim expenses as state revenue shortfalls have multiplied.

And the districts have been trimming the $38 million from their budgets since last month, when Baldacci announced those cuts as part of an immediate, statewide spending curtailment.

"We have no choice," Baldacci said Friday. "We must reduce spending further."

The education-spending reductions announced Friday incorporate a number of ongoing state cost-cutting initiatives, including a nascent push to streamline school transportation, a still-developing early-retirement incentive for veteran teachers, and Department of Education efforts to change special education rules to reduce costs.

"Many of our districts go beyond the requirements of federal law," elevating special education spending, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said.

Friday's budget cuts came with a call from the Baldacci administration not simply to cut positions and services, but to change the way of doing business.

"We cannot use resources to support unnecessary administration," he said, citing ongoing efforts to merge Maine's 290 school districts into 80 regional units. "We cannot afford the comfortable structures of the past."

While there are no explicit plans for the state to renew its school-district consolidation push, Gendron said she expects more district mergers out of necessity.

"Locally, I think, it's (tight fiscal) conditions that will drive it," she said.

Aside from mergers, the education commissioner called on local teachers unions to consider pay freezes, rather than stick to contracts that bind school districts to annual, incremental pay raises. The move, she said, would prevent some school staff members from being laid off.

Teacher and staff salaries covered by contracts account for more than half of school district budgets, Gendron noted. "Saving 2 or 3 percent of that cost would be a great savings for our local school districts."

Chris Galgay, president of the Maine Education Association, called Gendron's comment unfortunate. "I don't think she should use the bully pulpit" to command local pay freezes, he said.

"They make these decisions locally," said Steve Crouse, the teachers union's government relations director.

Cormier, who is also chairman of the Maine School Superintendents Association funding committee, said his district would entertain pay freezes as 2010-11 budget planning gets underway.

"The goal is to keep people working," he said. "If we all have to take a little less, I'm certainly willing to do that."

Baldacci's budget outline included no plans to raise state-level taxes or fees. Gendron also urged local school districts to hold the line on property taxes.

To help, she said, the state Department of Education will waive requirements that school districts raise set amounts in property taxes to make up for education funding the state isn't providing.

In addition, Baldacci's budget plans call for reducing the tuition rates paid by towns without their own schools to other districts' public schools and to private academies, such as Erskine Academy in South China and Thornton Academy in Saco.

"The purpose of this proposal is to help share the burden," Gendron said.

The Maine Community College System will face a $1.68 million funding reduction this academic year and a $1.7 million reduction in 2010-11.

The cuts would reduce the seven-campus system's capacity by 240 students and reduce the number of available courses for 200 other students, the system's chief financial officer, David Daigler, wrote to state budget officials last month.

At the University of Maine System, a $5.97 million cut this year and a $6.03 million cut next year could force the seven campuses to cut up to 100 positions, including some teaching jobs, Chancellor Richard Pattenaude told lawmakers in October.

Matthew Stone -- 623-3811, ext. 435

mstone@centralmaine.com