Lower tuition rate deals blow to Brewer

Posted Feb. 20, 2009, at 9:10 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — The school department suffered another financial blow earlier this month when it was learned that the state-set nonresident tuition rate would be less than last year, Superintendent Daniel Lee said Thursday.

Approximately half of Brewer High School’s student population comes from out of town, so tuition rates play a huge role in the budget.

“It’s not good,” Lee said. “It’s real bad.”

The state Department of Education has set the dollar amounts school districts can charge for nonresidents to attend their high schools, and most schools now can charge more — except for Brewer and eight others.

Brewer’s rate for 2008-09 was set at $7,406.

“That’s $247.54 less per student than last year,” Lee said. “That’s going to result in an approximately $300,000 shortfall in anticipated revenues this year.”

The state average grew from last year’s $8,039 to $8,553 for 2008-09, an increase of $514. Most schools will see increased amounts that range from a few dollars to just more than $1,200.

Out of the 117 school systems with high schools statewide, only Auburn, Augusta, Brewer, Ellsworth, Hermon, Lewiston, SAD 14 in Danforth, SAD 22 in Hampden, and SAD 60 North Berwick will see decreases.

For school systems such as those in Brewer and Ellsworth, which have more than half of their students coming from outside their community, the drop in revenues hurts the budget, but for others with few tuition students, the rate isn’t as large a factor.

For example, the decrease in the SAD 22 tuition amount doesn’t really affect the budget because the school system has few, if any, tuition students, Superintendent Rick Lyons has said.

How much high schools spend on students and student enrollment figures are used annually to determine the amounts, Jim Rier, director of finance and operations for the state Education Department, said Thursday.

“Not surprisingly this year, it [the state average] grew at a healthy rate because the costs continue to increase and the number of students decreased,” he said.

To increase the rates, high schools must spend more money or have a decrease in the number of students, he said.

The figures are calculated using enrollment numbers collected every April, and costs determined every fall. The state usually issues the tuition rates in December, but this year the numbers weren’t released until February.

The lower rate is bad news for Brewer officials, but for those who send students to the city, the news is good, Lee said.

“The shortfall is a gain for all the sending districts,” he said. “This is a windfall. This is one of the problems with school choice. Year to year, you have to estimate what your rate will be. Sometimes you’re right on; sometimes you’re low. This year we’re low.”

Orrington and SAD 63, which includes Holden, Eddington and Clifton, send most of their students to Brewer, but also have students going to John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor.

Private high schools, such as John Bapst and Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, are allowed to charge the state average plus an additional amount, and this year it’s 5 percent, Lee said.

“There is quite a difference between John Bapst and Brewer,” he said. “It’s pretty shocking.”

John Bapst’s rate for 2008-09 was set at $8,981, nearly $1,575 more than Brewer’s.

The only good news is that Brewer planned for flat funding, which made budget projects very conservative, but not conservative enough, Lee said.

The release of the tuition figures is the most recent budget blow that Brewer has seen in recent months, Lee said.

Gov. John Baldacci’s decision in November to cut school subsidies statewide by $27.8 million will mean state education funds for Brewer will be about 5 percent or $163,000 less, he said.

“Then you take the [$244,000] penalty for the failure of the proposed RSU 15 vote [in January], then you look at flat funding, then you look at increased costs [for utilities]. Next year’s budget is going to be difficult,” Lee said. “We could be cutting somewhere between $600,000 and $800,000.”

The fiscal year 2008-09 school budget is just more than $17 million to operate Brewer High School, Brewer Middle School and four elementary schools.

“Early on, knowing how things were working with flat funding, we were anticipating a curtailment,” Lee said. “We have no immediate plans for layoffs, but we are looking at all cost-saving measures, and layoffs are part of that. We will get by.”

The statewide list of tuition rates is available at the Department of Education’s Web site, maine.gov/education, by selecting data center, school financing and then tuition rates.

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