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Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel 02/02/2010

The big hit is here.

School officials throughout central Maine were reeling Monday when the state Department of Education released data showing how much aid public schools will likely receive for the 2010-11 school year.

The $92 million in cuts, long expected because of nose-diving state revenues, were in several cases much higher than what local school officials had expected. Some superintendents said Monday they were still digesting the numbers, but that the cuts would likely lead to building closures and staff layoffs.

Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which serves Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow, is slated to receive $1.9 million less in state aid, a reduction of 5.1 percent.

“It’s going to be bleak and disastrous,” said Eric Haley, superintendent of AOS 92. “I have no sense (of the impact), other than I called the state to see if we can get a breakdown by each member school unit. It’s a little harder than I thought it was going to be, but I knew it was going to be bad.”

State funding for public schools, which is still subject to approval by the Legislature, is based on a formula that involves property values and student enrollment. According to the data released Monday, the cuts vary in size and scope, with most local school systems seeing aid reductions of at least 5 percent.

Regional School Unit 18, which serves Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, seemed to fare the best of local systems with a 3.4 percent reduction. Even so, that’s not saying much: its cuts total $1.13 million.

During a forum last night, school officials in Oakland discussed the school system’s financial woes and possible cost-cutting measures that include closing the Atwood Primary School in Oakland, increasing class sizes and charging fees for sports and other extracurricular activities.

Mike Gallagher, superintendent of School Administrative District 53, which serves Burnham, Detroit and Pittsfield, said he was still trying to understand the data. He believes the $526,392 proposed cut in aid includes about $122,000 of curtailed money the district already knew about. Still, that would leave a total $404,000 reduction, which is slightly more than the high-end estimate Gallagher had made.

SAD 53 officials are considering closing and selling the central office building on Route 152 and closing the Burnham Village School.

“Any time we have to cut that much out of a $10 million budget, that’s a significant decrease,” Gallagher said.

Hardest hit in the area were Regional School Unit 19, which serves Newport, Palmyra, Hartland, St. Albans, Corinna, Etna and Dixmont; and the Mt. Blue Regional School District, which serves Farmington, Weld, Temple, Wilton, Chesterville, New Vineyard, Industry, New Sharon and Vienna.

RSU 19 saw state aid drop $1.67 million, or 7.9 percent, while Mt. Blue is slated to receive $1.91 million less, or an 8.6 percent reduction.

Bill Braun, superintendent of RSU 19, said Monday he had estimated state cuts to his district at about $400,000 less than what’s proposed. He was flabbergasted by the numbers and didn’t know how the school system would weather the cuts.

“I can’t paint a picture that big. If we’re talking just pure staff positions, that’s between 40 and 50 jobs. It’s huge,” Braun said. “And like anybody else, it doesn’t take into consideration the increasing costs of operations, i.e., fuel, electricity, and then you got teachers’ contracts.”

Braun said RSU 19 officials will need “to go back to the drawing board” and look at their options and make tough choices, just as other Maine school districts will need to.

“It’s going to a battle,” he said. “And it isn’t going to be pretty.”

Scott Monroe — 861-9253