June 04, 2020
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Schools hit hard Down East

MACHIAS, Maine — Education leaders in Washington County called the loss of state subsidies to their schools “devastating.”

Preliminary figures released by the state Department of Education last week indicate that Washington County schools stand to lose altogether almost $6 million in state aid.

“Washington County is facing a double whammy,” said David Connerty-Marin, a department spokesman, said this week. That’s because property values are rising dramatically while student populations are shrinking.

“Both have a huge impact,” he said.

“This is just devastating,” Scott K. Porter, superintendent of Unions 102 (Machias, East Machias, Jonesboro and Wesley) and 134 (Cutler, Machiasport and Whiting), said of the loss in subsidy funding. “I don’t have any solution.”

Hardest hit by the reductions proposed for the 2010-11 school year are RSU 85 (Lubec and the unorganized township of Trescott), which will lose more than $598,000 — nearly half of last year’s school budget of $1.2 million — and RSU 37 (Columbia, Columbia Falls, Addison, Harrington, Milbridge and Cherryfield), which will lose $998,959.99.

The next six individual Washington County towns taking the largest losses include Baileyville ($375,811.65), Perry ($229,935.30), Woodland ($202,741.25), Eastport ($198,629.48), Princeton ($181,162.86), Marshfield ($148,977.22) and Calais ($102,170.18).

All of these losses include state penalties for failing to consolidate under the state law passed in 2007 requiring Maine school districts to consolidate administrations.

Only two Washington County school systems — Indian Township and Pleasant Point — actually gained funding, while the rest of the county’s systems had their subsidies slashed.

Lubec is one of the hardest hit. Its subsidy for school year 2009-2010 was $601,908. The 2010-11 subsidy will be $29,107.

Cutler went from $214,431 to $9,754, and similar losses are repeated town after town, district after district.

Connerty-Marin said the state funding formula is based on the state’s Essential Programs and Services target allocation and valuation. As a county’s valuation increases, the subsidy decreases.

“It’s always been a debate whether that is a fair way to pay or not,” he said, “but the assumption is: the greater the valuation, the greater the ability to pay.”

“There are going to be significant property tax increases as all of these towns are designated as minimum subsidy receivers,” Porter said. In his area of responsibility, Porter is most concerned about Machiasport.

“They received $274,610 last year and that drops to only $13,315 this year,” Porter said. “This is due to higher property valuations and student losses. This will mean a significant property tax increase.”

Closing schools won’t solve the problem, Porter said.

“There will have to be a reduction in staff. That will mean bigger classroom populations. We’ll be going back to the olden days,” he said.

Neighboring RSU 37, however, is contemplating closing a school. Superintendent David P. Beal said the Columbia Falls school was closed last year because of financial constraints and the school board will determine this month whether it will proceed with closing a second one.

“We stand to lose $1.7 million,” Beal said. “I’ve been working in education for many, many years and I’ve seen shortfalls and their impact on rural Maine. I never thought it would get this bad.”

Brian M. Carpenter, superintendent of RSU 85, said closing the single school in Lubec — a combination elementary and high school — is not even a remote possibility.

“If the Lubec school ceased to exist, is it wise to bus students 70 to 80 miles to Machias or Washington Academy?” he asked.

With RSU 85’s budget nearly halved, Carpenter said, everything is on the table to be removed from the budget.

“We’re looking at everything,” he said.

Each district’s state subsidy is rooted in property values, and over the past 10 years, Washington County’s valuation has more than doubled, going from $1.7 billion to $3.5 billion.

Beal said Washington County is suffering partly because of skyrocketing coastal and lakeside property values.

“If you can see, hear or smell water in Washington County, the value of the property goes up by leaps and bounds,” he said.

“Washington County is land-rich and cash-poor,” Carpenter said.

Maine Revenue Service evaluations for the past 10 years indicate that coastal property values in Maine in some cases has tripled, as in Jonesport, Lubec, Machiasport, Milbridge and Perry.

Beals Island’s valuation jumped from $19.8 million to $62.8 million, while Roque Bluffs went from $24 million to more than $77 million.

Meanwhile, student population continues to decline. In the past eight years, the county has gained only 1,442 people, and town officials often attribute that tiny increase to retirees, not expanding families.

“Take into account the loss of student population and it kills us,” Beal said. “We don’t have a prayer.”

Beal predicted that if this year’s funding seems devastating, next year’s will be even worse.

Although federal stimulus funding has eased the impact of some state subsidy cuts, and there has been discussion that a second stimulus package might be in the offing, districts can expect additional subsidy cuts next year without that aid. The two-year cycle of federal stimulus funding that enabled programs and staff to hold on will end in 2011-12, taking many of those programs and positions with it.

School officials also do not expect the state’s budget crisis to abate and therefore are not expecting increases in state funding next year.

“I keep telling our school board that we are looking at a cliff now but we’ll be looking at the Grand Canyon in 2012,” he said. “We don’t have a lot to offer our kids now. But we’ll be offering even less.”

Beal said everything is on the chopping block: schools, staff and programs.

When asked what kinds of decisions superintendents are being forced to make, Porter said “Seriously, that is why superintendents of retirement age are getting out. There is no answer. It is so upsetting. This funding formula is destroying rural Maine.”

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