Bill seeks to increase school subsidies for some rural communities

Posted May 02, 2011, at 7:27 p.m.
Last modified May 03, 2011, at 11:09 a.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — A public hearing on a proposal to bring school subsidy relief to many rural communities — particularly those with lakefront or oceanfront properties — will be held Wednesday before the Legislature’s Education Committee.

Among those making the trip to Augusta to testify in favor of LD 1274 will be Scott Porter, superintendent of AOS 96, the Machias Bay Area School System, which serves 11 Down East towns.

Porter will be carrying a chart with him that he says clearly indicates the disparity in school subsidies for coastal towns.

“Land rich and jobs poor” is a term often used to describe the towns along Washington County’s coast. Since school subsidies are based partly on town valuations and valuations are based on property sales, Porter said, one or two sales of coastal land can adversely skew what communities receive from the state for education.

He cited Jonesport as an example of the disparity that can occur. Discovered as a summer haven by out-of-staters and artists, Jonesport’s valuation increased over the last few years while its job base stayed the same. In 2004, Jonesport received just over a half million dollars in school subsidy. But by 2009, that amount had been cut by 95.4 percent, to $23,707.

That scenario, said Porter, was repeated all along the coast. Steuben lost 67.6 percent of its subsidy over the same four-year period; Lubec lost 47.7 percent and was forced to close its high school; Eastport lost 39.3 percent and cut positions; and Machiasport lost 36.4 percent. Cutler, Beals, Milbridge and East Machias all lost funding too.

During that same period, Porter said, some wealthier communities in Maine saw state funding for education increase. Yarmouth’s subsidy, for instance, increased by 116.5 percent; Cumberland’s funding grew by 95 percent; Brewer jumped by 62.3 percent. According to data compiled by the Maine Department of Education, at least 16 Maine towns and cities received at least 20 percent more funding.

The proposed funding numbers for the coming year continue to decrease subsidies to Down East towns. Machiasport is expected to lose $111,786 this year, cutting their state aid to just over $19,000. Whiting’s aid will be cut in half, Roque Bluffs will be cut by a third, and East Machias will lose more than $60,000.

“The bill we are proposing would level off those spikes and losses in funding,” Porter said. The bill would allow communities to use either a three-year average of valuations or the current valuation, whichever is lower.

The bill also would allow rural districts with student populations below 1,200 to change their staff-to-pupil ratio by 10 percent. “This would push more money to small districts,” Porter said, “and allow us to have more teachers.”

Porter said the bill is sponsored by Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, and two other Washington County representatives, Joyce Maker, R-Calais, and Howard McFadden, R-Dennysville, who sit on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Porter said a group of Washington County leaders met months ago with the Washington County delegation, Gov. Paul LePage and Education Commissioner Steve Bowden.

“They were all supportive,” Porter said.

Parts of the bill could be enacted as early as this year, he said, with the full measure becoming effective in 2013.

But Porter said many affluent districts and cities are expected to oppose the bill.

“This unquestionably will flow millions of dollars into rural Maine but it will pull some of that money from the larger districts,” he said.

In the long run, he contends, the bill could reduce some of the disparity felt by rural coastal communities.

“Rural Maine, particularly any community with fresh or sea water, has really taken it on the chin,” Porter said.

The public hearing will be held at 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 4, before the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs, in Room 202 of the State Office Building. Internet broadcasts of all committee hearings are available live at www.maine.gov/legis/audio/cmte_directory.htm.

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