School officials in Cumberland and North Yarmouth knew early on that the budget for the coming year would be a tough one.

They started running the numbers for the 2010-11 budget last fall — about four months ahead of schedule — and offered more opportunities for public input in the review process than ever before.

Senior administrators, teacher aides, secretaries, janitors and bus drivers agreed to go without a raise in the budget year starting July 1. Teachers agreed to take a furlough day. School board members gave up their $600 stipend.

Still, when voters in SAD 51 go to the polls on June 8, they will be asked to approve a $28 million budget that eliminates 19 jobs, including teachers, aides and other support staff. And tax assessments for each town will go up about 5 percent.

School Board Chairman Dave Perkins said he hopes that voters will recognize the board’s effort to minimize the impact of cuts on students.

“It’s important that we come together as a community and support our school budget,” Perkins said.

SAD 51 isn’t alone. This spring, school districts across Maine are passing budgets that will eliminate 800 to 1,000 jobs in 2010-11, according to officials at the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Education Association.

The process is being repeated across the United States, as federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, which preserved many school jobs during the recession of the last two years, start running out.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 100,000 to 300,000 public school jobs are on the chopping block across the nation. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has mentioned these totals several times in recent days while promoting a $23 billion education jobs bill that’s working its way through Congress.

The emergency legislation would provide $90 million to Maine schools in 2010-11, according to Mark Gray, executive director of the Maine Education Association. Gray was in Chicago on Tuesday, meeting with teachers’ union leaders from across the country, who have mounted a lobbying effort to support the jobs bill.

The infusion of money would offset a $65 million reduction in state aid to Maine schools in the coming year, from $1 billion in 2009-10 to $937 million in 2010-11. A further reduction of $60 million in 2011-12 would reduce statewide education aid to an estimated $877 million and lead to widespread layoffs, education officials said.

Gray said the $90 million is critical to preserving the quality of Maine schools as the state seeks $20 million to $75 million in federal Race to the Top education reform funding. The latter will have little impact, he said, if Maine schools are forced to cut the teachers and programs that are on the line this spring and next.

Maine districts are already targeting jobs in core subjects such as English, mathematics and social studies, as well as world languages, vocational education and the arts, Gray said. Teachers will be laid off and vacancies will go unfilled. Class sizes will grow and smaller districts will turn to unvetted online classes.

“Maine has struggled to meet (educational goals set by) its Learning Results in good times,” Gray said. “If the economy doesn’t turn around, I think it’s going to require increasingly difficult choices for school officials across the state.”

Some Maine districts are making cuts in areas where staffing hasn’t been reduced in keeping with falling enrollments. Portland voters approved an $89.9 million school budget for the coming year that cuts 45 positions, including several special education jobs that exceeded recommended staffing levels.

The statewide public school population has dropped from 250,000 students in the early 1970s to 189,000 students today, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

At the same time, the number of public school employees grew through 2007-08 and now stands at 38,000, said Jim Rier, finance and operations director at the state department.

That means Maine schools have an average of one employee for every five students, and one teacher for every nine students — the lowest teacher-student ratio in the nation, according to state education officials.

While Portland schools may have been overstaffed in some areas, it was understaffed in others, such as multilingual programs that serve immigrants who make up more than one-quarter of the 7,000 students in Maine’s largest district. That’s why Portland’s budget calls for 8.5 additional multilingual teachers.

Portland Superintendent Jim Morse speaks for many school officials when he says he hopes that the federal education jobs bill passes and Maine schools get an additional $90 million in 2010-11.

“We desperately need that money,” Morse said. “As it stands, we’re expecting to lose another $4.2 million in state and federal funding in 2011-12, so we could really use it. But I’m not counting on anything until it arrives.” 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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