Schools officials reported a better outlook regarding Jefferson’s anticipated budget shortfall in a meeting with the town’s selectmen Dec. 15, and both bodies opted to continue a wait-and-see approach on the issue.
AOS 93 Superintendent Steve Bailey reported earlier this month Jefferson is facing nearly $140,000 in unbudgeted secondary education costs and a $20,000 increase in educational technician and special education costs, both due to students moving into town.
At a joint meeting of the Jefferson School Committee and the Jefferson Board of Selectmen Dec. 15, Bailey said savings have been identified which would reduce the unfunded portion of those costs to about $75,000.
However, Bailey still anticipates the state will withhold approximately $56,000 in subsidy from Jefferson: MaineCare seed funds used to cover costs for certain services for special education students in programs outside the school district.
Together, the unaccommodated portion of the unanticipated costs and reduced revenues represent an approximately $131,000 shortfall, according to the current iteration.
The school committee does have about $130,000 in undesignated funds, according to Bailey.
“We’re very, very tight right there about potentially being able to cover that shortfall through the use of the undesignated balance,” he said.
Jefferson voters would need to appropriate those funds for use, however, as well as approve increasing the overall education budget and the relevant specific budget areas at a special town meeting and subsequent budget validation referendum, Bailey said.
In a school committee vote, however, members were split 2-2 on whether to pursue such a town meeting yet.
Committee members Maria Solorzano and Forrest Bryant, who voted against the measure, advocated waiting for firmer numbers first.
“If you look at the numbers we were looking at three weeks ago to now, it’s completely different,” Solorzano said. “We don’t have concrete numbers, so it’s a little premature.”
Selectman Chair Greg Johnston suggested the school committee piggyback their supplemental budget vote with their annual budget vote later in the school year, since the actual shortfall would likely be more clear at that point.
“If you’re going to do it in May or something, you’d have a lot better numbers in May,” Johnston said.
“This is where I lose sleep, Greg,” said Bailey. “What if we get to May and we’re over-expended and the voters say, ‘No, we’re not going to fund that line’ and we’re in violation of the law in terms of overspending?”
An earlier vote would allow more time to deal with such an outcome, Bailey said.
Johnston also suggested the school committee could find the funds within their current budget to cover the shortfall by managing its budget as it did during the 2013-2014 school year.
Through the use of budget freezes, the school committee not only overcame a nearly $70,000 negative fund beginning balance that year, but ended up with a roughly $150,000 positive balance to end the year, officials said.
If the school committee manages its budget the same way this year, “You should have enough in your budget, the way I’m looking at it,” Johnston said.
The town’s K to 8 education budget is the likely area where any savings may be found or for cuts to be made, since Jefferson pays tuition to outside schools for its secondary students.
“We’re asking the primary school to skimp again for the second year, to do without, in order to meet this crunch to satisfy the secondary students,” said school committee Chair Bob Westrich. “How long do we continue skimping on education?”
According to Bailey, the revised figures already include some identified savings in the budget, and other areas where savings were found last year were trimmed down in this year’s budget.
“I don’t think that we could repeat the year of saving $150,000 this year like we did a year ago,” he said.
The two bodies plan to take the issue up together again at the selectmen’s meeting on Monday, Jan. 12, 2015.