Scarborough saw a 40 percent decrease in its state education subsidy. Portland’s dropped by $2 million. Sanford picked up an additional $4 million, as did Lewiston.
The governor’s proposed budget, with several controversial changes to how the state funds schools, has set up winners and losers throughout the state. Superintendents facing cuts in their state allotment say the belt-tightening will be significant.
“When we present our budget, it will only be things we need. There will be no ‘nice-to-haves’ in our budget,” said Scarborough Superintendent Julie Kukenberger, who is planning to leave some positions vacant and increase class sizes to make the numbers work.
Scarborough, which has a $47.5 million school budget this year, saw its state allocation decrease by $1.4 million – to $2.1 million.
It dropped in part because the town’s valuation went up, and wealthy communities get less state funding. The governor’s budget also cut $710,000 in administrative costs from Scarborough’s allocation.
To compensate, Kukenberger is working with town officials to provide the best education they can – and not raise taxes overall more than 3 percent.
“That will be the constraint we’re working around,” said Kukenberger. The drop in funding is “a pretty big chunk of money,” she noted. And while valuations may be increasing, the town’s median household income is not.
“Our 55-plus population is growing faster than our school-age population,” she said. “I know it’s getting harder and harder for our seniors to keep funding our students at the level they need.”
The Maine Department of Education released its 2017-18 projections for funding under the essential programs and services formula, and some districts saw unexpected changes because the governor’s budget lowered overall funding, cut about $40 million in administrative costs, and removed the penalty for federal Title I funds for disadvantaged students – about $50 million – allowing those funds to flow to the districts.
In the final calculation, more than half the state’s school districts, 132 out of 254, saw decreases in their state allocation.
The Legislature is debating the governor’s budget and in past years has added funds to education, changing the state allocations.
Like Scarborough, Portland and Cape Elizabeth superintendents say that even after they have made cuts and drafted lean budgets, they will have to ask taxpayers for an increase in the school portion of property taxes.
In Portland, Superintendent Xavier Botana is already looking to cut about $1.2 million from the $107 million budget he presented just last Tuesday. It called for a 6.5 percent increase in taxes, and the school board’s finance committee on Thursday asked him to get that figure down to 5 percent.
Botana refused to provide details on the cuts, saying he would unveil them at a public hearing and workshop of the board’s finance committee set for at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall. In his initial presentation, Botana said he had already made cuts in administration and adjusted school staffing based on enrollment, and planned to supplement the school budget by seeking grant funding.
Portland’s city councilors established a goal this year of limiting any citywide property tax increase to 2.5 percent in the fiscal year that begins in July. The property tax collected by the city is split roughly 50-50 between the school district and the city.
His initial budget did not cut any student services, Botana said.
“I think people are concerned that if we have to go further (in cuts) it will impact the children, and that’s obviously not something that any of us who care about schools want to do,” he said.
In Cape Elizabeth, the state subsidy is dropping for a second year, by almost $800,000, or about 30 percent of last year’s state subsidy. Over a two-year period, the state subsidy has dropped about $1.5 million.
“That’s a tremendous loss,” acting Superintendent Howard Colter said at a recent board meeting. In addition to leaving some positions vacant, including a social worker at one school, he’s recommending the board take $800,000 out of its reserves. If the numbers don’t change, it means Cape Elizabeth will have lost over $1.5 million in state revenue over two years.
“That’s very serious,” Colter said.
Even using the reserves, the district will have to ask voters for a 3.5 percent increase in the school portion of taxes, he said. Without the reserves, the proposed increase would be about 7 percent.
Biddeford was another of the winners in the governor’s proposed budget, with an increase of almost $1 million, or 9 percent, to its $11.6 million state allocation. Superintendent Jeremy Ray said the additional funding means the school district can consider adding a pre-K program, creating a new student internship coordinator position or purchasing a new elementary school math curriculum.
“It’s a very positive situation for us,” Ray said.
Biddeford saw an increase in its state allocation because of several small factors in its favor, including a lower property valuation and an increase in the number of English language learners and low-income students.
But like other school district leaders, Ray is already looking down the road, and not getting too comfortable.
“We’re already looking at what is our valuation in the next budget cycle. We always hope to put something together that isn’t going to set up a cliff or a difficult situation. We’re just looking for a stable situation,” he said.
Lewiston saw an increase of 9.4 percent in its subsidy, which rose by $4.8 million to $50.8 million. A combination of factors – low property valuation, a large number of English language learners and special education students, and increasing enrollment – means the city gets almost 75 percent of its budget funded by the state.
Superintendent Bill Webster said that even with the extra funding, the school budget will fall short slightly, but at the moment the district doesn’t have to ask taxpayers for an increase.
“This is in some respects a zero-sum game,” he said, referring to changes in the formula that in some cases benefited the district.
Lewiston and Portland are the biggest winners statewide regarding the change to Title I funds. Both Lewiston and Portland get about $2.2 million in Title I funds.
As expected, state funding for Maine’s nine charter schools is increasing as the schools add entire classes of students and build out their schools. Cornville Regional Charter School saw a 77 percent increase in its subsidy, to $2.4 million, and Snow Pond Arts Academy in Sidney – currently in its first year – will have a 90 percent increase, to $2 million. The total allocation for all the charter schools is $23.4 million.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: