Rural schools seek relief after state fails to meet education spending goal

Posted June 26, 2011, at 9:23 p.m.
Last modified June 27, 2011, at 5:29 a.m.

When the voters of SAD 29 in Houlton decided earlier this month to cut the total local share of the school budget by nearly 18 percent, they were taking advantage of a relatively new state law that aims to provide local communities some financial relief.

The law was also intended to give Maine towns and cities some justice. Back in 2003, voters passed a referendum that would have the state pay for 55 percent of the cost of education and reduce the burden on property taxpayers. But although it inched towards that percentage initially, the state has never met that 55 percent goal.

In response, legislators last spring made a new law that allows communities to make a proportional reduction in what they are required to contribute locally for schools without being penalized. The state will continue to pay full funding.

“It was an attempt to level the playing field,” Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the chair of the education and cultural affairs committee, said Thursday. “If the state isn’t meeting its obligations of 55 percent, we shouldn’t be penalizing districts for not meeting the [Essential Programs and Services] funding formula.”

EPS originally was developed as a way to ensure that students in all Maine schools received a fair share of state education dollars by defining programs that helped students meet the state’s Learning Results, a set of government-mandated benchmarks for students. The state pays for a specific list of programs under EPS and municipalities pay for programs and services that aren’t on the list, such as sports.

The complicated formula has long been controversial, with critics decrying it for being biased against rural and economically disadvantaged areas which have lost state funding since its implementation.

Jim Rier, director of finance and operations for the Maine Department of Education, said that the fact that the law is controversial isn’t surprising.

“The way I measure fairness is I hear the same amount of screaming from everywhere,” he said.

While many towns and districts choose to spend much more than what the EPS formula suggests that education should cost, others have opted to take advantage of proportional reduction.

Last year, 19 school districts and communities opted to reduce their local share for school budgets by as much as 12.65 percent.

Those were Auburn, Augusta, Biddeford, Brooksville, Caratunk, Grand Isle, Lewiston, Lincoln Plantation, Macwahoc, New Sweden, Reed Plantation, Sanford, Scarborough, Whiting, Whitneyville, SAD 4 in Guilford, SAD 17 in Norway, SAD 24 in Van Buren and SAD 33 in Frenchville.

This year, because the state’s education share has dropped to 45.22 percent, communities can opt to cut nearly 17.78 percent out of their school budgets.

Rier said that the proportional reduction option applies only to those two years and, as of now, will not be available next year.

He also said that he doesn’t know how many communities and districts will choose to reduce their budgets in this way for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, but anticipates that there will be more than 19.

Those districts will never need to “repay” the state the money they are cutting from their budgets, according to Rier.

But although taxpayers may see some relief now thanks to the new law, one school official said that he still would prefer if the state funded the full 55 percent for education.

“I think what all of us on the inside are hoping is that the state economy starts turning around so that the state will fund its fair share,” said Charles Anderson, the business manager for SAD 24 in Hamlin, Van Buren and Cyr Plantation. “Each year it gets further and further from what the state promised. And it’s not just a promise. It’s the law.”

He said that SAD 24 voters have done proportionate reduction both years it has been available, saving $90,000 last year from a budget that was supposed to be $717,424. For the next fiscal year, voters will not have to raise $139,836 from an expected budget of $783,558.

The district is not cutting positions or programs, but instead has used its cash balance to make up the difference.

“It’s obviously a concern,” Anderson said. “You don’t want to be rolling every dollar you have in unexpended balances into the next year’s budget. Is it sustainable? No, it’s not.”

David Connerty-Marin, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education, said Friday that it’s probably not a realistic goal to look to the state right now to pay a greater share of the cost of education.

In the state budget that was just passed, education funding fared “considerably better” than most other areas in state government, he said. Also, the legislature decided this session to count the $172 million the state spends in teacher pensions toward that 55 percent for the next fiscal year.

Connerty-Marin said that including that sum, the state next year will pay for 49.1 percent of the cost of education.

“The legislature decides each year what to spend on education, and it’s part of their statutory obligation to set that amount,” he said. “It became quite clear over the past few years that it was just not realistic in the current climate to hit 55 percent. I think that’s pretty well understood.”

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