May 23, 2018
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State releases preliminary school funding amounts for next year

By Christopher Cousins, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — The Department of Education on Friday released its preliminary estimates on how much funding Maine’s public schools will receive for the next academic year under a pending budget proposal by Gov. Paul LePage.

A memo sent to school superintendents Friday warned that the subsidy amounts do not represent any changes the Legislature might make during the coming months as lawmakers review LePage’s two-year biennial budget proposal.

LePage has said his proposal flat-funds general purpose aid for education, though education officials and some lawmakers have disputed that because of new costs for local communities that are also proposed. Those include having local school districts pay for 50 percent of teacher retirement costs, which will cost about $14.5 million statewide, and $12.6 million reductions to general purpose aid that were ordered by LePage in response to eroding revenues in December. LePage proposes keeping general purpose aid for education, which is the state’s portion of the cost of schools, at about $895 million for each of the next two years beginning on July 1 of this year.

The preliminary subsidy estimates are important for local school districts, many of which are in the midst of preparing their spending plans for the next budget year, which begins July 1.

Friday’s estimates do not include an additional $9 million included in the budget proposal that would be earmarked for specific projects. Those LePage proposals include $550,000 for adult education readiness programs; $2 million for the transition to a statewide proficiency-based diploma system; $2.5 million for the implementation of a teacher and principal evaluation system; $1 million for the expansion of a bridge-year program that would allow for five years of high school followed by a transition to a community college; $1.5 million for career and technical education industry certification support; and $1.5 million for the office of school accountability and improvement.

According to a school-by-school spreadsheet on the Department of Education’s website, some districts could potentially see more funding while others would take a financial hit. Lewiston, for example, could see an increase of some $2.3 million, which is the biggest rise in the state. At the other end of the spectrum are some southern Maine towns such as Sanford and Scarborough, which each stand to lose more than $850,000 in funding unless the budget package is altered.

The rest of Maine’s municipalities would fall somewhere in the middle. Bangor, for example would benefit to the tune of $253,000; Bar Harbor would lose $23,000; Brunswick would go up $85,000; East Millinocket, down $10,000; Machias, down $19,000; Madawaska, down $132,000; and Presque Isle-area schools, down $365,000; Portland, up $1 million; and Newport-area schools, up $550,000.

But those amounts may be a little misleading because of the proposal to have local school districts pick up half the cost of teacher retirements, which traditionally have been funded 100 percent by the state. Under LePage’s proposal, the state would funnel an additional $14 million into general purpose aid — bringing the total to about $923 million in fiscal year 2014 — but would divide the money for teacher retirements according to the school funding formula in an effort to distribute the funds more equitably.

Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said in a press release Friday that she fears the shifting of retirement costs to municipalities will be permanent.

“School funding is heading in the wrong direction,” she said. “Not only are we at a seven-year low in terms of state funding for schools, districts are now being asked to pick up a $28 million retirement obligation that belongs to the state. … The state is putting an unfair burden on school districts and the local taxpayers that support them.”

Brown argued that even though the state is putting $14 million more into GPA to help fund retirements, school districts will not have discretion over how to spend it as they always have. In addition, the more than 70 “minimum receivers” in Maine — which because of high property values get no state aid except for some special education funding — will receive no state help in covering retirement costs.

“The $14 million the state is putting in is money that should be used to pay for teachers and learning in the classroom,” she said. “If this proposal passes, the retirement bill will have to be paid first by school district, regardless of what we should be spending to educate our children.”

The Legislature, which this week passed a supplemental budget proposal for the current fiscal year, is due to start what is expected to be months of work on LePage’s $6.3 billion biennial budget proposal. The supplemental budget, which LePage said Friday that he would allow to take effect without his signature, also pushes schools’ final monthly payment in the current fiscal year from June to July.

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