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Maine school budget planners seek to address financial realities under COVID-19

Portraits of graduating seniors at Telstar Regional High School are displayed May 22, 2020, near the school’s athletic field in Bethel, Maine.

(The Center Square) – With Maine’s Education Commissioner projecting the state will need an additional $328 million to reopen schools this fall, Maine Public Radio reported, local districts have already been preparing scaled back budgets.

On Tuesday, voters in many communities will decide whether to support the spending plans.

“At a time when revenues to support education are more and more uncertain, i.e. we likely will get less, COVID-19 will make whatever we’re able to do next year more expensive than we anticipated,” Ken Kunin, South Portland superintendent, told the Portland Press Herald. “That is a tough nut to crack.”

Many districts have reworked proposed budgets to avoid burdening residents with higher taxes at a time many are struggling amid the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was a budget process like no other,” Jeremy Ray, the superintendent of Biddeford schools, told the Herald.

At the outset of budgeting early this year, Biddeford was planning on capital improvements, new hires, and asking voters to approve a 3.5 percent tax increase to help with funding it.

“The brakes got put on real quick,” Ray said. “We had to transform things pretty quickly.”

Instead, the newly revised budget is $39.2 million, up less than 1 percent over last year, and does not call for a tax increase. To make it happen, roughly $200,000 in capital expenses and $100,000 for software and other supplies was eliminated. Raises for office employees have been put on hold, as has hiring a high school math teacher and literacy education technicians.

Some things have been added, including funding for two elementary school educators, which will help address teacher-student ratios, and three schools will get resiliency coordinators to help address students’ social and emotional needs.

“We had to look at the ability to bring the budget in line to a place that (has) minimal impact on the tax rate while at the same time recognizing that our students would probably come back to us with more needs than when they left,” Ray said.

Superintendents across Maine should learn in the coming months about potential curtailment in education subsidies from the state.

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