Boost in state revenue could provide $20M in aid to Maine schools

Posted March 04, 2010, at 11:09 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A proposed $20 million addition to Maine’s general purpose aid to education should be helpful for school districts struggling to balance big budget shortfalls, but it won’t fix the problem, several superintendents said Thursday.

Gov. John Baldacci on Wednesday announced that projected state revenues are expected to rebound slightly and that the revenue shortfall has shrunk to $360 million from $438 million. His administration would like the extra money to be spent on public schools and Department of Health and Human Services programs.

David Connerty-Marin of the state Department of Education said Thursday that the proposed $20 million for schools has been added to the existing general purpose aid to education and calculated through the usual formula to determine how much money individual school departments get from the state.

The money is contingent on the approval of Maine lawmakers.

“I’m sure [school districts] are glad to get the extra money, but there’s no getting around that there’s still a significant drop from year to year,” Connerty-Marin said.

According to a spreadsheet from the Department of Education, the range of increases is great as the $20 million is divvied up among Maine schools.

The Greenbush School Department, originally slated to receive $1.57 million from the state and stimulus funds, will receive an increase of just $27 for the 2011 fiscal year. The Portland School Department, on the other hand, will receive $1.348 million more from the state.

“Portland did very well,” Connerty-Marin said. “But then, when we had a reduction, Portland lost a lot of money.”

Examples of proposed budget additions include $374,513 for the Bangor School Department, $5,539 for the Beals School Department, $72,216 for Hermon, $26,734 for Machias, $49,494 for Madawaska, $191,378 for RSU 13 in the Rockland area, $264,477 for RSU 20 in the Belfast area, $133,016 for RSU 26 in Orono and Veazie, and $97,573 for the Five Town CSD in the Camden area.

Maine’s education funding held fairly steady from 2001 to 2005, according to numbers provided by the Department of Education. After LD 1 was passed in 2005, the numbers changed as the statewide property tax reform initiative aimed to ease the local costs for schools by providing more state money and setting restrictions on the ability to raise taxes for school spending on the municipal side.

State education subsidies — which were meant to pay for 55 percent of education costs — climbed steadily, from $737 million in the 2005 fiscal year to $836 million in 2006, $914 million in 2007, $978 million in 2008 and $984 million in 2009.

In the 2010 fiscal year, the state originally budgeted $1.002 billion for education, but slowing state revenues in the recession required that figure to be slashed to $964 million.

Betsy Webb, superintendent of the Bangor School Department, described the constant budget changes as a roller coaster. She heard Wednesday evening that Bangor would receive extra money from the state, but by Thursday morning, she was notified that Bangor’s property valuation would be declining and so would the local contribution for schools.

“I was excited last night. I thought the money would help us with our revenue shortage,” she said Thursday. But with the drop in local funding, the money would be “a wash,” she said.

Mike Weatherwax, assistant superintendent for the Five Town CSD covering Camden, Appleton, Hope, Lincolnville and Rockport, described his district’s additional money as “helpful.”

“It will reduce what is roughly a $1.3 million subsidy loss,” he said. “But to pin it to any one thing is pretty premature.”

The revised preliminary budget for general purpose aid to local schools can be found at www.maine.gov/education/data/eps/fy11/prelimgpafy2011.pdf.

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