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Machias not suffering big school subsidy cuts

Posted Feb. 11, 2010, at 10:33 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Of the many towns in Washington County whose state subsidies for education are being slashed in 2010-11, Machias is among those losing the least.

Education leaders there attribute the relatively soft blow to three elements: School Union 102’s decision not to consolidate with surrounding districts; a blossoming Machias student population; and the town’s pattern of a slow-rising state valuation.

Machias in 2010-11 is set to lose just $4,721.15 from 2009-2010’s subsidy of $1.3 million, according to preliminary figures released by the state Department of Education last week.

Contrast that with neighboring Marshfield, which is losing $148,977.22 of the $407,218.17 it received last year.

How state funding for education is figured

David Connerty-Marin of the Maine Department of Education described the funding formula the state uses to figure how much each school system receives:

“The education funding formulas are actually two formulas,” he said. “One is the Essential Programs and Services formula which sets a target for how much money each school district should spend to educate a student. It is a benchmark allocation and has everything to do with enrollment.”

The second formula is based on a district’s ability to pay. It is based on property values and is determined by multiplying a town’s valuation by a predetermined statewide percentage.

“If a district or union wants to spend more than our EPS recommendation, it certainly may,” he said, “but the state is not going to share in that.” Those funds must be raised locally.

“I am now more concerned with the town’s ability to pay the county tax than the education costs,” Machias Town Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said.

In much of the county, property values are rising dramatically while student populations are shrinking. Those conditions translate into lower levels of state funding.

But in Machias, student numbers are growing and the valuation growth is slow.

While Maine state evaluation figures show that much Washington County coastal property doubled and tripled in the past 10 years, Machias’ value did not. It was $83 million in 2000, and $140 million in 2010.

“And we just kicked in 100 percent valuation,” Fitzgerald said. “We were using figures from 1992. We brought our properties into the 21st century.”

Along with a relatively slow increase in property value, Machias also has seen an uncharacteristic rise in its student population.

“The money follows the students,” David Connerty-Marin of the state Department of Education said Thursday. Connerty-Marin said state figures show that other communities around Machias lost subsidy because of dramatic student losses.

Beals’ student population dropped 10 percent. RSU 85 (Lubec and Trescott) dropped 10 percent. Machiasport dropped 4 percent.

But Machias gained 7 percent in student population.

“That’s a gain like nobody is having,” Connerty-Marin said. He said it appears to be due to a very high number of two-superintendent agreements, in which two superintendents allow students from other districts or unions to attend a specific school because it fits the geography or family needs.

There are 104 two-superintendent agreements in Machias and East Machias alone, a very high number, Connerty-Marin said.

To put it in context, he said, there are only 43 two-superintendent agreements in the Portland school district, which has 7,000 students.

A third factor in Machias’ funding, according to Superintendent Scott Porter, was Machias’ decision not to consolidate.

Porter said he felt relieved for the town of Machias when the new numbers were released and maintains that the scenario would have been far worse if Union 102 had consolidated.

“I was 99 percent sure Machias [and Union 102] made the right decision not to consolidate,” he said. “But now I am 100 percent sure.”

Scott leads one of the largest groups of schools in the state — 11 towns that make up School Union 102 (Machias, Jonesboro, Marshfield, Northfield, Wesley, Roque Bluffs and Whitneyville), School Union 134 (Cutler, Whiting and Machiasport), and the separate municipal school unit of East Machias.

All rejected school administration consolidation plans, preferring instead to accept state funding penalties.

Union 134 and East Machias both took huge losses in the 2010-11 projections, as did all of the other towns in Union 102, which includes Machias, but Machias only lost $4,721 in state subsidy.

Porter said that although Union 102 may face penalties for not consolidating, it still likely saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by standing alone.

“If we had joined the [regional school unit] to our west, RSU 37, we stood to have to share in a $998,000 loss,” he said.

“If we had joined the schools to our east, RSU 85, we’d share in over a million-dollar loss,” he said.

Porter said that some of the other towns in Union 102 lost “fairly significant amounts: Machiasport [$261,294], Cutler [$204,677], Jonesboro [$114,872], Marshfield [$148,977, due to bus reimbursement last year and drop in special education costs], and Whiting [$104,492]. But Machias did fairly well.”

Machias was penalized $45,192 for failing to consolidate, but that figure is much smaller than its share of the reductions if it had consolidated, Porter indicated. Without the penalty and without consolidating, the town’s funding actually would have increased.

Porter said that figure is a bit misleading, however, since it doesn’t reflect $100,000 in lost tuition from surrounding towns. Although Union 102 will receive additional state funding for each student who moves into Machias, it loses the tuition the students’ former towns paid.

“Mind you, we are not out of the woods yet,” he said. “Because of the tuition losses we will still have to make cuts. There is no question.”

Meanwhile, the Union 102 school board seeks solutions through legislative action to continue to avoid consolidation. An attempt is being made to eliminate penalties for districts or unions that can show they are saving money by not consolidating.

Brian M. Carpenter, superintendent of RSU 85, which also did not consolidate, said the penalties are the least of his worries. RSU 85 is losing half a million dollars in state subsidy — nearly half its $1.2 million annual budget.

“Consolidation and the funding formula do not work in Washington or Aroostook counties or in western Maine,” he said. “I agree there are some successes in consolidation out there, but only if you are geographically centered can it work.”

The Legislature’s Education Committee recently voted to delay all nonconsolidation penalties for two years but that still needs to be ratified by the full Legislature.

“We are already doing everything we can,” Porter said.

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