Independent schools hit hard by cuts

Posted Feb. 24, 2009, at 8:41 p.m.

EAST MACHIAS, Maine — Recent changes in state education funding have created unintended hardships for the state’s independent schools, their students and the towns they serve, according to the head of the Maine Independent School Association.

Judson McBride, headmaster at Washington Academy and association president, said the across-the-board cuts not only have hurt the schools, they also have decimated the state subsidy provided by the Department of Education to the towns that send students to the private high schools.

McBride said he understood the reasoning behind the need to reduce spending during a period of slumping state revenues, but he disagreed with the way it was done.

“We know there needed to be cuts, we just don’t think these were equitable,” McBride said Tuesday. “It may have been an easy place to find money, but not an appropriate one.”

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As a result of the cuts, which were implemented in the current school year, Washington Academy lost $130,000 in state funds. In addition, the surrounding towns that tuition students to the academy lost $200,000 in subsidy as well, an 80 percent reduction from the year before.

The specific program affected by the cuts was the Insured Value Factor. IVF funding has been provided to the independent schools in recognition of the fact that they educate public students without receiving any tax dollars for construction or renovations. Public schools are built and maintained with state and local tax dollars, he said.

The Legislature cut the IVF payments in half from about $800 per student to roughly $400 per student. The funds are used for long-term upgrade and renovation projects which are financed by the schools. Similar cuts will follow in the coming school year, McBride said.

There are 18 private schools in Maine which educate more than 5,000 public students, including the 10 town academies which educate primarily public-tuition students. Washington Academy has 430 students, 300 of which are public.

McBride said that many of the private academies already were established and educating local children before Maine even required public education. He said communities that were sending their children to the private schools continued to do so when public education became mandatory.

McBride noted that many of those same communities, including the towns in the East Machias region, or those sending students to Foxcroft Academy in Dover-Foxcroft, Lee Academy in Lee, or Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, and others, were not wealthy communities. He said it was unlikely those communities could pro-vide the same quality of education if they had to do it on their own.

“They couldn’t afford the education we provide,” McBride said.

McBride noted that unlike the public schools, the private academies receive no subsidy for transportation, debt service, special education and vocational education. He said the academies receive much less per student from the state, compared to the cost to educate students in the public schools.

McBride said that when the state cuts funding for public schools under its Essential Programs and Services formula, it is done across the board.

“In our case, they do not use the formula,” he said. “They just targeted the academies. Who ever heard of anyone losing 80 percent of their subsidy?”

McBride said the schools and their communities have made up the difference through careful management, private fundraising, and use of their facilities in the evenings and summers. The schools provide strong education, do it at lower cost to taxpayers than public schools and represent a great educational value, he said.

“The cut in committed funding created hardship. But it is this year and in future years that it will be most harmful to our communities and students,” McBride said. “As an educator, I find it troubling to see the state fail to keep commitments made to taxpayers, leaving them holding the bag. I think there is going to be a lot of unhappiness and discontent in these communities and loss of jobs and programs in our schools because of this. It is unfortunate. But on the upside, it can be easily rectified.”

McBride said association members and their supporters plan to testify to restore funding during Wednesday’s joint hearing between the Education and Cultural Affairs and Appropriations Committees on the coming school budget.

“The amount we are talking about is tiny in the scheme of Maine’s education budget, but it is hugely significant at the scale of the affected towns and schools,” McBride said.

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