School costs are often a sticking point for struggling towns, especially those losing population. They make up more of a municipal budget than any other expense — but that expense varies widely town by town.
The cost that each local community pays each year varies in Maine from $2,000 per student to $25,000 per student.
Towns are able to choose what they pay for their children’s schools to some extent, but this variation is not all by choice. Mapping local school costs shows that towns away from the I-95 corridor are spending more on schools, but they might have different reasons for doing so.
The chart below shows the geographic spread of per-student local school spending. That’s what each town pays to send its kids to school. The sum doesn’t include state funding.
Upton, in Oxford County, paid $25,000 per student in local school costs, while Washburn paid $2,000 in the 2016-2017 school year.
Are towns choosing to spend more on their students, or are some towns forced to spend a lot per student?
The answer is a little of both.
It’s common to see wealthier towns, such as in the southern part of the state, choose to spend more. Meanwhile, struggling towns may have to raise more money locally as they receive less school aid from the state when their school district loses students.
They do this because it’s often difficult to cut spending commensurate with the loss of student population, said Jim Rier, who oversaw school finances at the Maine Department of Education before becoming education commissioner. He retired in 2015.
For example, when a school building has 80 students as opposed to 100, the heating costs remain the same. A teacher with a class of 17 students receives the same salary that she would if she were teaching a class of 20.
How do richer and poorer towns fare when it comes to paying the local costs of school?
Every town in Maine has a certain number of families who live below the poverty line: $24,300 or less annually for a family of four. In Maine, half of all towns have more than 9.3 percent of their families in poverty, and the other half of Maine towns have less than 9.3 percent of families in poverty. That’s the median.
Towns below the median pay, on average, about $1,000 less in yearly local school costs. But because that’s an average, many towns with more families in poverty are still paying above-average local school costs.
For example, 31 percent of families in Upton live below the poverty line, but the town still paid $25,000 per student in local school costs in 2016. Greenville had 26.2 percent of its families in poverty and paid $10,764 per student. And Portland saw 14.4 percent of its families in poverty and paid $9,208 per student.
The graphic below shows how much towns in varying states of poverty pay per student for school. Hover over the circles to see where each town falls, or search for a specific town in the search bar.
You can also see county results. For instance, most of the towns in Androscoggin County are wealthier and pay lower local school costs — except for Lewiston and Livermore Falls, which have poorer families but still pay relatively low school costs.
Erin Rhoda, Matt Stone, Danielle McLean and Rosie Hughes contributed to the data analysis.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.