Cuts in school funding setting up budget battle

By Mal Leary, Capitol News Service
Posted Dec. 16, 2008, at 9:20 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci’s emergency budget proposes $27 million in cuts to local schools and further proposes that the cuts be allocated using the same formula used to distribute state aid.

The cuts are stirring opposition and likely will prompt an intense legislative battle when lawmakers consider the budget.

“There are those that think the way we are proposing to reduce school funding is unfair,” Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said. “We are using the funding formula as it is written to distribute the cut.”

She said lawmakers and school officials have made their concerns very clear, and she expects there will be attempts to change the way the cuts are distributed when lawmakers consider the budget plan.

“There are always fights about the distribution of school aid, and there certainly will be one this time,” said Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell, D-Vassalboro. “I hope that people will look at what is in the best interests of the kids and not revert to computer printout politics.”

But she acknowledged that lawmakers from communities that are losing significant sums likely will try to soften the blow. But she said she doubts that will be possible.

“We don’t have the money,” she said. “We are looking at even greater cuts when we do the biennial budget. This is just the start of a lot of tough cuts we have to make.”

Maine schools are receiving subsidies from the state totaling $956,528,141 this budget year after the reductions are made.

Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, the Senate GOP leader, said how to distribute the school cuts likely will be as much of a battle as anything lawmakers will face in working on the emergency budget in January.

“This place lives or dies by those printouts,” he said. “School funding formulas are an age-old battle here, and it will be this time.”

House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, said she already has heard from several lawmakers concerned about how the education cuts will be distributed. She said a group of Portland lawmakers met with her this week to complain that the state’s largest city is being unfairly treated by the cuts as are several other communities.

“Obviously those legislators are concerned,” she said. “It’s the job of the Legislature to figure out if these cuts are fair. Can people live with them, and the bad news is it’s not going to get easier.”

Pingree said balancing the two-year budget means finding further cuts, and education cannot be exempt.

Gendron said using the same formula for cuts as for distribution of the funds is fair and believes lawmakers eventually will agree. But, she acknowledged, the complexities of the formula likely will result in some lengthy debates and discussions among lawmakers.

“There are those who think we should have proportionally reduced,” she said. “That is not how our funding formula works. Our funding formula takes into account the property valuation of a community and has always looked at the ability of that community to support education.”

Gendron said that under the funding law, the higher the property valuation, the greater the assumption that a municipality has a greater ability to pay for its schools. In general, she said, the state pays a higher percentage of costs for communities with low valuation and a lesser percentage of costs for those with high valuation.

Gendron said another factor in the complex school funding formula is special education costs. Most communities will see a reduction of state subsidy for special education from 50 percent to 45 percent. But those small communities that have no special education costs are getting 5 percent of their operating costs as a subsidy from the state and those amounts are not reduced under the proposal.

For example, the town of Beals in Washington County gets only $132.53 in subsidy and will see no cut. Neither will Jonesport, which receives $23,632.43. But neighboring Jonesboro will lose $12,744 in GPA out of its total state subsidy of $371,237.21. In all, 16 districts will see no decrease in aid.

Portland lawmakers are upset because the city will lose $1,836,816, a cut of 12.3 percent. But it is not the largest receiver under the formula. Lewiston, which is scheduled to receive just over $30 million this year, is the biggest receiver of state aid. It would lose $544,000 under the proposal.

Bangor will lose $531,348 under the proposal, Brewer will lose $162,648 and SAD 1 (Presque Isle) will lose $139,020.

The spreadsheet listing every school administrative district and the dollar amount of their loss is posted at http://www.maine.gov/education/data/eps/fy09/eps0809.html.

http://bangordailynews.com/2008/12/16/politics/cuts-in-school-funding-setting-up-budget-battle/ printed on July 29, 2014