May 22, 2018
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Kids in decline spells trouble for schools

Stephen M. Katz | BDN
Stephen M. Katz | BDN
Meredith Jordan walks her little sister Brittney, 7, to her class on the first day of school at Morton Avenue School in Dover-Foxcroft in 2002.

There has been lots of finger pointing in Augusta in recent years over school funding. Many communities feel shortchanged by the Essential Programs and Services model. Some blame the previous administration’s consolidation mandate. What much of this anger about school funding misses is that Maine’s youth population is declining — and expected to continue to drop for decades.

According to U.S. Census data, Maine’s population of infants to 14-year-olds dropped by 9.5 percent from 2000 to 2010. That is a total loss of more than 23,000 kids. The biggest drop was in 10-to-14-year-olds.

To put that in perspective, Maine’s youth population dropped more than the total populations of Rockland, Rockport, Camden and Belfast combined — all in a decade. And experts say those numbers will continue to slide.

Despite serving fewer kids, school spending has been going up. For the 2000-01 school year, total statewide K-12 spending was just under $1.5 billion, according to figures from the Department of Education. That includes state funds, known as general purpose aid to education, money raised locally through property taxes as well as federal funds. By the 2009-10 school year, total spending had risen to slightly more than $2 billion.

As a result of those two trend lines crossing, per-pupil spending has grown rapidly. In 2000-01, the average K-12 per-pupil cost was $6,233. By 2009-10, it had risen to $9,663, according to the department’s numbers. Although the increases have slowed in the last two years, the average annual increase over the decade was 5.2 percent.

Certainly, there are costs of running schools that superintendents and principals have little control over, such as rising health care costs and higher prices for heating oil. Beyond this, difficult choices are going to have to be made.

The previous governor tried to reduce spending on school district administration by mandating consolidation. That remains controversial.

Another spending mechanism that tried to tie school funding to necessity and efficiency — Essential Programs and Services — is also reviled in many corners of the state.

EPS was developed about a decade ago as a way to ensure that students in all Maine schools received an adequate share of state education dollars. EPS determines how much money is needed to provide students with the education they need to meet the state’s Learning Results, a set of state benchmarks. Adjustments are made for poverty, English proficiency, distance school buses travel and other variables.

For the 2011-12 school year, the statewide EPS allocation is about $2 billion. The state share, as set by the budget recently passed by the Legislature, is roughly $895 million, leaving about $1.1 billion to be raised by local communities.

How much each district pays is then determined by the state’s school funding formula, which uses property values as a measure of communities’ ability to pay. In some areas, especially coastal communities where property values are rising, this has led to less state funding — and outrage.

What this shows is that no matter how Maine divides up the money, it can’t mask the fact that there are fewer students.

Since this demographic reality is not changing, school districts should come up with their own plans for lowering costs. If district consolidation is the wrong answer and EPS doesn’t work, school officials could be most helpful to state policymakers by crafting their own plans to better align school spending with the state’s youth population.

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