As soon as they return from their holiday break, school officials around Maine will have to start finding ways to reduce spending in budgets that already are depleted by half.

That could mean ending discretionary spending, postponing equipment purchases and building maintenance projects, freezing all hiring and renegotiating contracts with unions, say school board members in districts that stand to be hit hardest by the curtailment order issued Thursday by Gov. Paul LePage.

“There are no good choices when you face cuts this big in the middle of the fiscal year,” said Justin Costa, the Portland school board member who chairs the board’s Finance Committee.

The state Legislature will have a chance to revise LePage’s planned cuts when he proposes a supplemental budget in two weeks, so his school aid reductions could change.

Cuts in General Purpose Aid make up more than a third of the reductions outlined in his $35.5 million curtailment order. Districts across Maine would have to reduce spending by a total of $12.58 million over the next six months.

Some districts would have to make deeper cuts than others, because reductions in state aid would be based primarily on enrollment and the assessed value of real estate in each district.

Districts with high property values face the largest cuts, relative to their total state and local funding.
Scarborough, for example, stands to lose 1.2 percent, South Portland stands to lose 1.1 percent, and Portland and Biddeford face losses of 1 percent.

Many districts in rural and suburban communities face smaller reductions, such as Gorham (0.5 percent) and School Administrative District 10 in Aroostook County (0.3 percent).

Portland school officials would have to find $870,000 in savings in a $94.2 million budget that ends June 30.

Mayor Michael Brennan said the formula that LePage used in the curtailment order doesn’t account for residents’ income. “It’s very unfair to Portland and similar communities,” he said.

South Portland’s school board would have to cut its spending by $411,000. Board member Karen Callaghan said the board and administrators will work quickly and come up with a plan.

“The first step is to curtail any extra spending, anything that is non-essential,” she said.

Kenneth Lemont, chairman of the Kittery School Committee, said he and other school officials anticipated losing as much as $90,000 in the curtailment order. Now, the district faces $128,000 in cuts.

Lemont, a former Republican legislator, said he wishes that LePage had found other ways to cut state spending to balance the budget.

With cuts to school aid, he said, “It puts the burden on the local communities.”

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, noted that during the recession, Gov. John Baldacci issued curtailment orders with deeper cuts for schools.

Baldacci cut state aid to districts by $28 million in 2008 and $38 million in 2009.

One difference is that districts used federal stimulus funds to fill the gaps in those years, he said. This year, those funds aren’t available.

Even with the cuts, Connerty-Marin said, the state will give school districts $902 million for the 2012-13 school year. Last year, the state gave school districts $889 million.

“People seem to forget that we had increases for the last two years,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that people aren’t feeling the pinch.”

The timing of the cuts in state aid makes the search for savings that much tougher, superintendents said Thursday.

Typically, employees are hired, textbooks are bought and utility rates are set by September. By the end of December, “a majority of your funds have been earmarked,” said Alan Hawkins, superintendent of Somerville-based Regional School Unit 12.

Hawkins froze spending in the fall, after RSU 12 encountered unexpected expenses for special education placements and other needs.

The district is not spending money on anything that’s not absolutely necessary, such as field trips. Now, it expects a $146,728 hit from the curtailment.

In Farmington, RSU 9 Superintendent Mike Cormier said the $135,250 cut to his district would hurt, especially since the district had to add to its staff because of higher-than-expected enrollment.

But the curtailment could have been worse, he said.

“I’m a little comforted that (schools) are picking up about a third of the (state budget) shortfall,” he said, “and not more.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:

tbell@pressherald.com