Education commissioner: Governor can't cut education aid

Posted Nov. 20, 2008, at 7:44 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Education Commissioner Susan Gendron told members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee that any actual reduction in general purpose aid to education must be made by lawmakers, not through a curtailment order.

“Until the Legislature takes action in the supplemental budget, I do not have the authority to reduce the payments,” she said. “The attorney general has told us that the governor can delay the last payment [of the budget year] but unless the Legislature acts, it cannot be reduced. “

Gendron said the school funding law is a complex formula and the law requires legislation to change it. The governor, she said, is not allowed to make the changes under his emergency budget curtailment authority.

“What we are doing in the curtailment order is putting school districts on notice that there will be $27 million less in GPA this year,” she said. “We will be proposing that decrease in the supplemental budget.”

Under questioning by Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterboro, a former education commissioner, Gendron said the preferred way to cut the payments would be over the last four or five months of the budget year instead of having it all cut in one month.

Schools receive nearly $1 billion annually in general purpose aid and the cut this year amounts to about 2.7 percent of the total amount of state school subsidies.

“There should be a caution to the districts that things could get worse,” said Sen. John Martin, D-Eagle Lake. “The governor based his curtailment order on an amount and that amount could get worse.”

Martin, who was first elected to the Legislature in 1964, said the economy could worsen and revenues slump further than they already have. He has seen it happen before.

“We don’t know how bad it’s going to get,” he said.

Gendron said school superintendents have been notified about the likely amount of the reduction this year and that it will be proposed that the reduction continue in each year of the new two-year budget, which starts next July.

“This $27 million will continue forward and that is why many school superintendents are looking at steps like layoffs, curtailing trips, use of substitutes now because the impact will continue,” she said.

Several committee members asked about the details of how much each district will see in cuts. Jim Rier, the DOE official charged with crunching the numbers, said the spreadsheets detailing the cuts for every district are being reviewed and will be posted on the department’s Web site Friday morning. The site with the detailed spreadsheets is http://www.maine.gov/education/data/eps/epsmenu.htm.

Gendron said the spreadsheets would show that school districts would be affected by the cuts based on the school funding formula, not across the board as some news organizations reported.

“Some will see a very significant impact,” she said, “while others will not see that much of an impact to their subsidy.”

The school funding formula provides greater state aid to poorer communities and less aid to wealthier communities.

“In those districts that receive more aid, they may have no other choice but to look at reducing staff in order to balance their budgets by the end of the fiscal year,” she said.

Dale Douglass, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, expressed concern last month about the problems all schools will face. He was particularly concerned that those that receive most of their budget from the state will be hardest hit.

He is also concerned that the reduction in state funds will mean a shifting of costs to local property tax payers.

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