With its 18th season of music education under way and new leadership in place, the Portland Conservatory of Music launches its fall fundraising campaign this week with a sense of urgency.

The school, which operates Parish House of Woodfords Congregational Church in Portland, hopes to raise $75,000 to help balance an operating budget that runs consistently in the red and to begin to pay off lingering debt that hampers the school’s ability to grow, said board president Steve Hessert.

The school has an operating budget of $425,000 and is carrying about $100,000 in debt, Hessert said. He would like to raise enough money to pay down a large portion of that debt this year with the goal of eliminating it completely in four or five years.

“We’re hoping we raise money to meet our budget and retire past debt, and we’re putting together a plan to do that,” said Hessert. “That sum is not insurmountable, but I would much prefer to not have it or have it be more modest debt. I would say it’s important for us to be successful this year and next in raising money, but it’s not a crisis.”

Hessert has been board president for one year, and this summer the school hired Mark Tipton as it new executive director. He replaces Stephen Shiman, who led the school for two years. Tipton, who lives in Portland, worked as Shiman’s assistant for several months before being named his successor.

Beginning Monday, the school will begin a campaign to reach new donors. It is trying to raise awareness of its financial situation in hopes of stabilizing the school, which provides music education to youngsters and adults.

The focused effort to resolve the current financial shortfall is part of a larger strategic plan that also involves updating the school’s databases and financial reporting system, establishing partnerships with schools and other arts and community organizations, and updating the board’s service manual, and other related themes.

That plan may involve hiring a part-time development specialist.

Current enrollment is about 150, which is down from the previous three-year average of 230. Tipton would like to restore enrollment to the three-year average, and, ideally, increase it to 250.

The decline in enrollment heightens the financial stress and sharpens the board’s focus on fundraising. The school raises about $250,000 annually from tuition, and looks to grants, foundation support and private giving to make up the rest.

Hessert said the school needs to do a better job raising money. “I would say that we have a lot of people who are good at delivering musical education and delivering a good musical product, but we have not had the expertise to raise money,” he said.

Tipton attributed the enrollment decline to competition. A new music school opened nearby in Portland this year, drawing some students and teachers away.

A review of the conservatory’s recent tax returns shows it has ended its fiscal years with shortfalls ranging from $37,000 in 2011, the most recent year for which tax information was available, to $46,000 in 2010.

The Portland Conservatory was established in 1995, and offers instruction in musical performance for students of all ages, from early childhood to adult. Most of its students live in southern Maine.

In addition to music education, the school hosts about 50 concerts a year, featuring students, faculty and guests. It sponsors the Noonday Concerts series at noon Thursdays at First Parish Church in Portland.

The school has about 40 instructors.

It caught the attention of the nonprofit world in 2010 when it received a gift of $300,000 as a scholarship endowment. The endowment allows the school to expand its need-based and merit scholarships, but the money cannot be used to balance the budget or pay down debt.

Given its legacy and its commitment to music education, Hessert said it’s important for the school to find a stronger fiscal footing.

A lawyer by trade, Hessert enrolled as a piano student and got involved on the board at the urging of his piano teacher.

He believes in the mission of the school and wants to help it achieve financial stability.

“With new leadership, we are more acutely aware of the financial situation, or perhaps more sensitive to it. I am told it’s not that much different than it has been in the past. We’ve been in worse shape than we are now,” he said. “I think we are going to be fine, but we need to focus on development and we need to raise money.”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:bkeyes@pressherald.combkeyes@pressherald.comTwitter: pphbkeyespphbkeyes