April 01, 2020

Fuel prices burn up school budgets > Brewer district could have $16,000 shortfall due to high heating costs

BREWER – Like many others in the region, the local school department is feeling the pinch of escalating fuel and utility prices. The potential impact of price increases for heating fuel, electricity and similar expenses on this year’s school budget was among the issues that members of the School Committee dealt with Monday night during their organizational meeting at Brewer High School.

During a briefing for the committee, Business Manager Lester Young recapped some of the budget woes the school department is facing due to rapidly rising fuel and electricity prices.

“Some school systems are in dire straits because of the cost of fuel,” he said, adding that budgeting is not an exact science. Young said that few foresaw such high price increases for heating fuel when developing their budgets early this spring, and as a result, they budgeted too little.

In September, school officials negotiated a relatively low price for heating fuel, at just under $1.02 per gallon, well below the current market rate of just under $1.60 per gallon. Despite that, this year’s rate is 48 percent higher than the school department paid a year ago, he said.

If the area experiences the same weather conditions as last year, Young said, the school unit could end the fiscal year with a $15,000 to $16,000 shortfall.

Electricity was another concern, with rates currently 11 percent over last year. Young noted that the school department spent $128,000 for power last year and budgeted $142,000 for this year. Based on his latest projections, Young estimated a potential shortfall of $6,000 to $7,000.

In comparison, Young’s forecasts for other utilities were optimistic. The school department appears to be right on target when it comes to sewer and water fees, and because Young negotiated cheaper long-distance telephone rates, the department should realize an estimated $5,000 in savings.

Also Monday, school officials heard a report on the high school’s alternative education program, housed in a former storefront near the corner of South Main and Wilson streets.

According to David Morris, who along with Andrea Jordan, staffs the program, the program is designed to meet the needs of students who don’t thrive in traditional school settings.

“I really believe that we’re very fortunate to have the program that we have here,” Morris said, attributing the program’s success to teamwork with administrators and students and their parents.

During the three years since the program was established, 25 students who might otherwise have dropped out – about a third of those who’ve enrolled – have graduated. Some now are pursuing higher education. Besides regular high school courses, the program offers adult education programming, for credit, and assistance with study skills.

Heavy on student input, the program helps restore some students’ faith in education and lets them take ownership of their accomplishments, Morris said. Many participants also have joined sports teams and extracurricular programs at Brewer High.

Presented to the school board as examples of the program’s success were Chad Bean and Jenny Siering, both of whom graduated this year. The couple met while enrolled in alternative education. Today, Bean attends Eastern Maine Technical College and Siering is enrolled at University College at Bangor. They also are employed and are the parents of a 6-month-old son.

In his remarks to officials, Bean said he enrolled in alternative education because high school “didn’t work for me.” Without the program, Bean said he probably would not have graduated.

Siering concurred. “I don’t know where I’d be today,” she said, adding that the smaller group setting “felt like a second home” to her. “It was a good experience.”

Motivated in part by Siering’s pregnancy, both finished high school in three years, rather than the traditional four. Bean said he knew he needed to further his education if he were to support his family.

“Having a baby is no walk in the park,” he said.

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