February 5

Not enough seats on school buses a sign of Messalonksee district’s budget woes

Gary Smith, superintendent at Regional School Unit 18, says the district will likely seek an increase to its budget for next year.

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Funding levels in Regional School Unit 18 are so tight that some children were left without seats on their bus at the beginning of the school year, and administrators say they will have to ask voters to approve a budget increase this year so the district doesn’t have the same issues.

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RSU 18 Superintendent Gary Smith

Some bus service was eliminated as a cost-cutting measure earlier this year, but had to be reinstated, an example of how efforts to trim budgets are distracting the district from its primary goal of teaching students, said Superintendent Gary Smith.

“I think on some things we’ve gone too far, or deferred things for too long,” Smith said.

The budget, currently $32.3 million, is used to operate schools in the district’s five towns of Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney.

Smith said he is not sure how much of an increase the district will seek. “Basically, I see an increase,” Smith said. “We’ll try to keep it modest and be responsible.”

Smith said the current school year has been difficult, with budgets so tight that services to children are being affected. Over the summer, administrators worked to eliminate two of the district’s estimated 35 bus runs in the widespread district, for a total cost savings of about $65,000.

It worked on paper — just barely — but when the plan was put into practice in September, “I don’t think we could have made the start of school any more challenging,” Smith said.

Sometimes, students prepared to board their bus in the morning only to find there were no available seats on them. In other cases, the bus ride for some students was increased to as much as 90 minutes.

In at least one instance, a bus driver completed a run with students sitting in the aisles.

“No buses should roll if a child is not in a seat,” Smith said.

The district in November was forced to reinstate one of the cut bus rides, in Belgrade, and the other one, in China, in January. The end result was a lot of wasted time, frustrated parents and children who had to put up with the inadequate service.

“In a normal economic time, we probably would not have proposed that,” he said.

Smith said the bus debacle is just one example of how a tight budget has distracted him and other administrators from educational programming.

Another plan, to reshuffle administrators at Atwood Primary School, Belgrade Central School and Williams Elementary School in a way that would eliminate $20,000 in costs, was abandoned after parents objected and the logistics made it clear it would be more difficult than first imagined.

Now, Smith is reviewing proposed budgets from the heads of each school, and collecting projections on the costs of the district’s insurance, wages and energy needs.

Many of the school heads have asked for increases in their school operation budgets of between 4 and 5 percent, he said, but that doesn’t mean those requests will be sent along to the school board or voters for approval.

Meanwhile, unexpected costs have presented new challenges, including generator failures, which have cost about $25,000, and an unexpected bump in tuition rates for alternative high school choices from district students.

Ordinarily, such costs might be covered from reserve accounts, Smith said, but now each unexpected cost requires a lot of thought. “To be honest, I’ve decimated the supply lines. We’ve depleted all district reserves. We’ve reduced the savings accounts to the bare minimum,” he said. “We’re nervous about this year, about making it.”

In order to be enacted, the district’s budget must be approved by voters in its five towns, a prospect the district can’t afford to take for granted. In 2012, voters twice rejected proposed increases to the budget in June and August before approving a flat budget in October. In 2013, voters approved an increase of roughly 1 percent to the district’s budget, but that amount was not equal to the hit the district took from a cost-shift of teacher retirement expenses from the state to local schools.

Since the recession struck five years ago, RSU 18 has gone through some lean times. In 2009, its budget was about $34 million, about $2 million more than it is today. At the same time, state funding to the district has been reduced each year, for a total loss of $4.5 million between 2009 and 2014.

Smith said he hopes that next year will give the cash-strapped district a little breathing room. For now, though, he said things continue to be uncomfortably close to disaster.

“We have no room for error,” he said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287 mhhetling@centralmaine.com Twitter: @hh_matt
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