'Perfect storm' leads to reductions in Appleton school budget
Appleton — With a new school year about to open, Appleton School Committee met three times in the month of August to address problems with the budget. The problems were discovered shortly after new School Union 69 Superintendent Nancy Weed started work July 1.
Weed said one of the first things she did was to look at the budgets of the three schools in her district: Appleton Village School, Hope Elementary School and Lincolnville Central School.
In the Appleton budget, she looked at the $242,560 given as the balance forward from the previous year and thought it sounded high, so she asked about it. In fact, the number was $105,164 more than the school had available to carry forward from 2012-13, according to a handout made available at the Aug. 6 school committee meeting.
“The good news,” Weed said, “is that we’ve discovered it early.”
Asked how the mistake — which represents around 5 percent of the school’s budget for the year — occurred, Weed said, “That’s the question. I may never know.” She added, “When you start to build the foundation of your house on an error, you know you’re going to have problems.”
She went on to say that, with the retirement of former Superintendent Tom Marx Jan. 1, and the hiring of interim Superintendent Denis Howard to serve for the remainder of the 2012-13 school year, plus having a bookkeeper on leave with a temporary replacement, the district office experienced “a perfect storm” of circumstances to allow problems to arise.
Appleton Principal Gary Bosk explained this year’s budget was created partly under Marx's leadership and partly under Howard's. He said the principal's office wasn’t responsible for the carryover amount. He noted the school is “on the expenditure side of things,” whereas, “revenues for the school … is the purview of the central office.”
Weed praised Bosk, who returned from vacation in July to address the shortfall. “He’s been terrific,” she said.
She also praised the work of the school committee, which has two members who were newly elected in June.
“It’s been really nice to have people who want to work together to solve this problem,” she said.
She added that the committee will be receiving ongoing training from her, so that going forward, “they will understand the budget process, because they know the questions to ask.”
During the course of the last month, the school has faced a series of unexpected financial needs. In addition to the excess amount carried over in the 2013-14 budget, the school finished the 2012-13 year $11,474 over budget, according to the Aug. 6 handout. Also, health insurance costs for 2013-14 were under-budgeted by $13,303, the salary for gifted and talented instruction was under-budgeted by $5,414, and there was a savings in special education instruction of $6,443, for a total budget shortfall as of Aug. 6 of $128,911.
But by the Aug. 19 school committee meeting, there was more bad news: that was the day Weed found out about a $4,000 bill that had been received in July from engineering firm Gartley & Dorskey of Camden for design work on a parking lot paving project. In addition, a teacher had requested a leave of absence requiring a long-term substitute. Weed said the reason for the leave was confidential. She initially estimated the cost for the substitute at $2,000.
Further expenses were announced at the most recent meeting on Aug. 27. Since the previous meeting, Weed had revised the estimated cost for the long-term substitute upward to $5,064, and a school employee had asked for health insurance, at a cost to the school of $2,700. Employees may request health insurance at any time if there is a change in their life circumstances, such as divorce or the death of a spouse, Weed explained. Now the shortfall was up to $142,448.
However, Weed, Bosk and the school committee had not been idle between meetings. They had been working together to find ways to reduce expenses without eliminating programs or classroom teachers, Weed said.
At the Aug. 6 meeting, Weed recommended, and the school committee passed, reductions amounting to $108,179. These included more than $40,000 from spreading preventive maintenance work on the roof of the school across two years, rather than doing it all this year; $7,200 from freezing all professional development and travel expenses; $4,000 from freezing part of the budget for field trips and field trip transportation; $9,600 from reducing the art teacher’s position from four days a week to two; $4,300 from reducing the music teacher’s position from four days a week to three and a half; and $9,600 from eliminating a part-time educational technician in special education; plus a number of other areas that were frozen. There was also a savings of $6,518 because of an overpayment to Luce Transportation in 2012-13 that was to be made up at the beginning of the new school year.
On Aug. 19, the committee passed additional recommended cuts from Weed that added up to $18,963. Included were a further reduction of music instruction from three and a half days to three days a week, a reduction in the number of Spanish textbooks to be ordered and a cut in the line for Special Education substitutes.
It was at this point that the Gartley & Dorskey bill came to light, as well as the need for a long-term substitute. These expenses were addressed at the Aug. 27 meeting.
At that meeting, the school committee passed a further $19,184 in cost reductions, as recommended by Weed. This amount was about $5,600 more than needed, but Weed warned the committee, “there are a lot of unknown variables,” one of which was the length of time the long-term substitute would be needed. Therefore, she recommended reducing expenses by the extra amount to allow some flexibility. If the substitute were needed for the whole year, she said in a subsequent interview, it would cost the school $36,000.
The Aug. 27 reductions included cutting the Spanish teacher’s position from four days a week to three, for a savings of $6,600; reducing the guidance counselor’s position from four days a week to three, for a savings of $8,629; freezing the remaining budget for field trips and field trip transportation, to save $4,105; eliminating stipends for the school committee, at a savings of $1,722; and reducing expenditures on new textbooks by $4,150.
At that meeting guidance counselor Jenny Roberts asked the committee not to cut her position, saying, “Any cut in staff has a significant impact on students. Any cut in a program has a significant impact on students.” She went on to say that Appleton students have many issues in their lives, including family deaths, parents in jail, anxiety and more. “When there’s something going on in their life, it makes it really hard to focus in class,” Roberts said. “…Oftentimes school is the only stability these kids have.”
Bosk said of the reductions in force and other cuts the school had to make this year: “When you start cutting programs for kids, it’s going to impact kids. … You can’t help it.” He added that any cut hurts, because, “We don’t build programs that are wasteful.”
The principal also noted that 80 percent to 85 percent of the school’s budget goes for personnel, so “When you have to whittle away a large amount of dollars, you can’t get that from paper and pencils.”
Besides the school committee, Weed and Bosk, only seven people attended the Aug. 27 meeting, and Weed said the earlier meetings had been sparsely attended as well.
“We thought we’d have a lot more people,” on Aug. 27, she said, adding, “I think it’s great if people come and ask questions.”
Bosk said he has fielded a few questions from parents in town, but “I haven’t heard a lot.” He said in general Appleton residents, “just get behind the school, support the school,” and want to know how they can help.
“That’s worth a lot,” he said.
Also at the Aug. 27 meeting, the school committee authorized Weed to prepare a supplemental budget using the $22,000 in state subsidy money that became available after this year’s budget was passed. Weed was also instructed to notify the town’s Board of Selectmen that a supplemental budget will be submitted and to request that selectmen order a special budget meeting and validation referendum.
Although the immediate financial need has been addressed, Weed stressed that Appleton’s situation, like that of many other schools, is precarious. If a new child with special needs comes into the district, if there’s another budget curtailment, or if some other unforeseen expense arises, the school could face renewed difficulties.
After more than $140,000 in cuts, “I don’t have any fat to cut in this budget,” Weed said.
Bosk was optimistic. “We’ve had a little setback, but we’ll recover from it and move forward because of the people.”
Sarah E. Reynolds is a reporter for the Camden Herald.
Sarah E. Reynolds has been a reporter and writer for more than 20 years, winning awards from the Maine Press Association and other professional organizations. She loves to read, hike and play word games.
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