When Gov. Baldacci officially sends in Maine’s application for federal funds to support education (perhaps as early as today), school districts will be forced to address a very unfamiliar question. How do you spend it?

School officials have gotten good at cutting over the last two years. But they have not had much experience adding to a budget.

This money will arrive with tight federal direction that it should be used to restore or preserve jobs, but the state can have no say about what the priority should be. All the spending decisions have to be made at the local district level.

As welcome as the funds will most likely be, there are two problems.

This is one-time money that by law must be spent on salaries, which we would not normally consider a one-time expense.

The other is that while this year’s school budgets are already set, next year’s will already have a big shortfall from the expiration of the federal stimulus funds, which have been helping to support local education for the past two years.

It will be up to school committees and superintendents to figure out what makes the most sense for their districts, but we hope they will keep a couple of principles in mind.

The first is that not all the cuts made during the last budget season were bad. School districts like Portland engaged in a careful deliberative process in which some positions were added to the budget even as others were eliminated. It was a delicate balancing act and simply restoring eliminated positions could upset the balance.

The other is to keep the 2011-2012 budget in mind. Adding personnel now only to cut those positions and more in the spring does not make for continuity, which is important to students. Reducing the impact of the loss of federal funds on next year’s budget supports education and preserves jobs.

The funds also create an opportunity for districts to get creative. Schools can experiment with early childhood classes, after-school programs and tutoring. As long as they are adding jobs, it’s an allowable use of this money.

School district officials may be rusty at making these kinds of choices, but they should take as much time figuring out how best to spend this money as they did on how to cut.


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