With a nearly $1 million revenue shortfall on the horizon, the Mt. Blue Regional School District is in the midst of “horrible” times, Superintendent Mike Cormier warned Farmington-area residents last week.

Superintendent Jim Morse used the word “bleak” at a similar public forum in Portland, where he laid out the challenges of developing a budget for the coming school year with a $4 million revenue shortfall.

School officials across Maine are bracing for a $60 million reduction in state education aid when federal economic recovery money, which buoyed many districts through the last three years, runs out in June.

About 1,200 school jobs hang in the balance as districts consider cutting teachers and programs, increasing class sizes and even closing schools. Factor in additional federal funding cuts — and the possibility that the Maine Department of Education may not get the $877 million it wants for state education aid — and the overall impact could get worse.

“The challenge facing Maine school districts is dramatic,” said Cormier, who is president-elect and funding committee co-chairman of the Maine School Superintendents Association. “Education is a key component of the vibrancy of our communities. If we lose sight of that, we’re going to shortchange our children.”

The Education Department started warning districts about the funding “cliff” that would come this budget season when it started using federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money to bolster state aid allocations in 2008.

Since then, the department has dedicated $129 million in federal stimulus funding to state education aid, including $59 million in the current fiscal year, preventing widespread layoffs and program cuts in schools across Maine. In that period, the state’s support of school districts has dropped from a high of $984 million in 2008-09 to a low of $937 million this year, leaving local property taxpayers to make up the difference.

Now, Republican Gov. Paul LePage and a Republican-dominated Legislature must develop a biennial state budget, starting July 1, that anticipates a projected two-year, $850 million revenue shortfall.

The governor is well aware of the financial challenges facing Maine schools and will do what he can to minimize the gap left by federal and state revenue reductions without raising taxes, said Stephen Bowen, LePage’s senior policy adviser.

“The governor wants to try to fill that hole,” Bowen said. “How much depends on what savings can be generated elsewhere. It’s unrealistic to think that we can replace that kind of money.”

Bowen met with superintendents in southern Maine recently to explain LePage’s position. Bowen said he found that most districts have been planning ahead and anticipate flat or reduced funding. LePage has said he wants to protect teaching positions and educational programs and promote further administrative consolidation.

“We want to maximize the amount of resources going into teaching and learning,” Bowen said. “We’re going to do everything we can, but we’re going to have to focus on doing more with less.”

School officials say that’s what they’ve been doing for years, and there’s little left to cut without seriously hurting Maine’s schoolchildren.

“What’s making this particularly difficult is, this isn’t the first year that districts have faced these kinds of cuts,” said Dale Douglass, executive director of the Maine School Management Association. “This has been a downward spiral since 2008. There isn’t any low-hanging fruit left to cut.”

Douglass noted that district officials are at the end of a long line of decision makers. As some elected officials push to reduce spending and taxes at the federal and state levels, they leave local officials to figure out how to preserve bare-bones school programs without foisting the tax burden onto property owners alone.

In Portland, Superintendent Morse faced the possibility of laying off 150 teachers after the recession hit in 2008. The federal stimulus money prevented a major work force reduction, but the district still had to eliminate more than 50 positions last spring and has taken numerous steps to reduce costs.

The district also received $2.6 million last year through the federal jobs bill, and spent only $680,000 in the current budget, leaving about $1.9 million to help offset a total projected loss of $6 million in federal money in the coming school year.

The remaining $4 million hole could force the elimination of as many as 80 jobs. That’s about 7 percent of the 1,200 employees in Maine’s largest school district.

“The big question facing all school districts now is what can we do to mitigate the loss of that money,” Morse said. “We have to attack it from a whole host of avenues, but there’s no way we can take a revenue reduction of that amount without some job loss.”

Across Maine, districts have spent about $5 million of the state’s $39 million jobs bill allocation, which could be used in the current or coming school year.

Most decided to save some or all of their allocations to offset the loss of other federal funding in 2011-12, including the Mt. Blue district. The nine-community district set aside $260,000 of its $362,000 jobs bill allocation, but that won’t offset a nearly $1 million state-aid reduction in a $22 million budget.

The district lost $1.6 million in state aid in the current budget, largely because enrollment dropped slightly and property values outpaced the state average, even though half its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

As a result, the district eliminated 15 positions last spring, including 12 teachers, as well as the elementary foreign language program and the middle school music program.

Now, Cormier is talking about cutting more jobs and programs, contracting private busing and custodial services and possibly closing the Cushing School in Wilton and sending its students, who are in pre-kindergarten through Grade 2, to the nearby Academy Hill School, which currently enrolls students in grades 3 through 6.

“Eighty percent of our budget is salaries and benefits,” Cormier said. “The only place you can realize significant savings is in people. And we’ve been eliminating positions every year for the last three years.”

The prospect of more cuts troubles Cormier, who has been a superintendent for nearly 30 years, including 18 in the Mt. Blue district. He recognizes that every position or program eliminated may never be restored, and that students may suffer because of it.

“The bottom line is the education that happens in the classroom,” Cormier said. “That’s the priority.”

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

[email protected]