Area school departments said this past week they will be able to weather a pullback on promised state subsidies, mostly by relying on money that would have otherwise gone unspent in their 2013 budgets.

In addition to contingency funds, dollars have been found in savings from staff turnover and lower-than-expected fuel bids, among other sources. Still, all three local school departments, in Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough and South Portland, say they’ve tightened the belt on supplies, thanks to spending freezes enacted shortly before the spigot was officially tightened in Augusta.

On Dec. 27, Gov. Paul LePage signed a $35.5 million curtailment order on spending for the fiscal year ending June 30. The order followed a Nov. 28 report from the Maine State Revenue Forecasting Committee, which revised its projection on annual economic growth downward to 0.2 percent, from an earlier outlook of 1.3 percent, based on falling sales and use tax receipts as well as worsening forecasts for individual income tax and corporate income tax revenue.

Spread proportionately across cost centers, LePage’s curtailment order pulled $12.58 million in monthly general purpose aid payments to schools, one of the larger areas of state spending, through the end of the fiscal year.

Locally, Scarborough was sacked for $392,056.50 from its $4.8 million subsidy – 1.2 percent of its overall budget. South Portland took a 1.1 percent hit in relation to its budget, leaving it short $411,284.50 from the $3.1 million in subsidy it expected to have to work with at the start of the fiscal year last July. Cape Elizabeth also was docked 1 percent of its budget, for a total of $196,872.50 from its original $2.025 million subsidy in its $21.8 million budget.

(A previous version of this story erroneously attributed the percentages given as reductions in the state subsidy rather than the school budget as a whole. It has been corrected.)

The immediate response from area school officials regarding how to cope with the funding loss seemed one of bewilderment.

“It’s always difficult in the middle of the school year to produce a savings in this amount. How we actually do that, we don’t know yet,” said John Christie, chairman of the Cape Elizabeth school board.

“By this time in the fiscal year our staff is in place, most of our supplies are purchased, and contracts are signed for energy, software licenses and professional services, so it is a significant challenge to find flexibility in spending,” said Scarborough Superintendent George Entwistle.

However, over the intervening two weeks, the situation has shaken out much as predicted by Kate Bolton, finance director for Scarborough schools.

“We’ve been here before,” she said, “It’s not fun, but we’ll be able to wiggle it. We always do have a certain amount of surplus over appropriations at the end of the year. We strive for that.”

For example, Scarborough finished the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2012, with roughly $450,000 – enough to cover the entire curtailment – unspent from its $35.7 million budget for that year.

“That $450,000 is still in the bank, but that’s a place we don’t want to go,” said Bolton. “We’re told by the auditors that we want to keep that on hand in case of any emergencies.”

Entwistle could not be reached for dollar amounts Tuesday, but a finance committee meeting on Monday reportedly identified areas where there should again be a surplus over budgeted amounts. Among the key line items, said Bolton, are so-called “turnover savings” – derived when new teachers are hired at a lower salary than budgeted for their predecessors – as well as savings on benefits and natural gas prices.

In November, Entwistle called for a freeze on discretionary spending, including classroom supplies and some professional development for staffers.

“Those are things we really do like to spend money on because they do directly impact student learning, but they are the main areas where we can choose not to spend,” said Bolton.

In Cape Elizabeth, Superintendent Meredith Nadeau said fuel prices were locked in at a lower price than expected, while the cost for health insurance also rang in below budget. The balance of Cape’s shortfall will come from a $100,000 contingency fund that has yet to be tapped this year, said Nadeau.

“We are feeling like we will be able to get through the year without a significant impact on student programming at this point,” she said. “But I think it’s fair to say we’ll be walking a fairly fine line for the remainder of the year.”

Meanwhile, in South Portland, Superintendent Suzanne Godin said her district has about $150,000 in turnover savings following the resignation or retirement of 47 staffers between the time the budget was adopted last spring and the start of school in September.

Godin said she also will tap a $150,000 contingency fund, while hoping to save an additional $150,000 to $200,000 from a freeze of supplies and professional development.

Like Nadeau, Godin said the larger concern is for next year.

“The more we can save this year, the more it will help next year,” she said.

“I am confident that we can get through this particular year but we are cognizant of the fact that next year many be very, very difficult,” said South Portland school board Chairman Rick Carter. “So, it’s one step at a time.”


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