SOUTH PORTLAND — School officials have cut the 2020-21 proposed budget by $1.1 million to $53.6 million after reviewing their original budget proposal in light of the economic impacts of the coronavirus.

“A lot has changed,” School Superintendent Ken Kunin told the school board at a virtual workshop held last week.

The consensus was that the final budget should be pared down to the bare necessities and contractually required expenditures, with as little new spending as possible. This would be done both to accommodate possible cutbacks in state funding, and to alleviate the tax burden to a population that is already experiencing hard economic times due to the pandemic.

“We owe it to the citizens of South Portland to keep it down as low as we can,” board member Dick Matthews said during the April 9 workshop.

The 2020 school budget stands at just less than $52.4 million. The current working budget proposal presented by Kunin April 13, available on the district’s website, would lead to a tax rate of $13 per $1,000 of real estate valuation over the $12.71 school tax rate, an increase of 2.3% to 29 cents, or $72.50 per year for the owner of a home worth $250,000.

In the original 2021 budget, presented on March 9, Kunin proposed a $54.4 million spending plan, which would have, if accepted, led to a new tax rate of $13.30, an increase of 59 cents, or $147.50 per year for the owner of a home worth $250,000.

The only new expense that he wants to keep on the budget, Kunin said, was an additional nurse, valued in the proposal at $78,733, increasing the pool of nursing staff shared between the district’s schools from eight to nine. In the current environment it is definitely necessary, he said.

“The nurse, we do feel that in this context, probably would be wise to maintain,” he told the board.

The board is planning another virtual workshop on the budget on Thursday, April 23. Kunin said this week that barring any news about state subsidies that might prompt him to advise waiting, the board will likely vote on the budget that night.  The budget will then go to a public hearing before the City Council Tuesday, April 28, with a City Council budget workshop scheduled for May 26.

On April 10, Gov. Janet Mills issued an order moving the official date for primary elections from June 9 to July 14, and Kunin said he believed the referendum finalizing both the school and municipal budgets would take place then as well.

Subsidies remain the big wild card in the budgetary discussions. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Kunin said, subsidies were likely to go down for the 2021 fiscal year, but with the newest changes in the economy, especially the unemployment rate, it’s tough to know just what the local district will ultimately receive.

Kunin said he wasn’t sure exactly when the last time there was a state funding reduction, otherwise known as a curtailment, but when it happened it was a decrease of 13%. Kunin said a 13% curtailment applied to today’s budget would amount to a deficit of $880,000.

There is a possibility, he said, of a second economic stimulus bill from Washington, but there’s no guarantee, or any way to gauge, what impact that could have locally.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world,” he said.

Rafe Forland, director of finance, operations and human resources for the district, told the school board that the district has made use of federal funding in tough economic times before. Back in 2010, he noted, the district made use of funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, along with money from a federal jobs bill. He did not specify which jobs bill when speaking to the board, and he referred all further Forecaster inquiries to Kunin.

“We moved various expenses from the local budget onto these two sources (at the time),” he told the board at the workshop.

It’s possible that the district will be able to make use of money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, as well as possible changes to federal Title Grants. which routinely provide federal funding to school districts through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Forland said any new funding made available to local districts through measures such as these could help cover losses in subsidies, and with a potential curtailment of more than three quarters of a million dollars, “We have to come up with that money somewhere.”

Sean Murphy (207)780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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