February 6, 2012

Districts win, lose pieces of aid pie

Already facing federal cutbacks, those losing under the state formula find the prospect 'devastating.'

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Fluctuations in property values and student enrollments promise to increase or reduce each district's state education aid allocation across Maine in the coming budget year. But that's just the tip of the iceberg for school officials who face federal funding losses that threaten teaching positions and programs in many districts.

click image to enlarge

Jessy Brewer, left, and Kiara Neal work on their laptops in Ann Young’s math class at King Middle School. Portland expects to receive 6 percent more state school aid in 2013.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

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While some districts are expecting significant state-aid increases, including Portland, Falmouth and Biddeford, others are anticipating major reductions. The losers include Westbrook, Brunswick and Cape Elizabeth, according to preliminary figures released Thursday by the Maine Department of Education.

Westbrook Superintendent Mark Gousse was "stunned" to learn that his district's state-aid allocation will decrease an estimated $607,000, from $13.3 million this year to $12.7 million in 2012-13.

"It's devastating," Gousse said Friday. "It's a game-changer."

Gousse fully expected a reduction in state aid. Last September, the education department had estimated it would be a disappointing but manageable $215,000 loss. But when the department released updated figures last week, Westbrook's hit had nearly tripled.

Westbrook stands to get less state aid because its $1.8 billion property valuation fell by only 1 percent from 2010 to 2011 and its enrollment held steady at 2,440 students, faring better than the state average on both counts.

Westbrook is one of seven school districts across Maine that are expected to lose more than $500,000 each in state aid in the fiscal year starting July 1. Brunswick is bracing for the biggest hit -- $1.2 million -- in the wake of the Brunswick Naval Air Station closure last June.

While dozens of other districts stand to lose smaller amounts, many districts will see increases, ranging from $36 for Lake View Plantation to $2.9 million for the Mount Blue Regional School District in Farmington.

Property values and student enrollment are driving factors in the formula that the state education department uses to divvy up education aid. Total state aid is expected to increase $19 million to $914.7 million in 2012-13 under a proposal from Gov. Paul LePage that's being reviewed by the Legislature.

Each district's allocation is weighed against the state averages for both factors, which have declined in recent years. From 2010 to 2011, municipal assessments decreased an average 2 percent across Maine, bringing the statewide valuation to $167 billion, according to Maine Revenue Services. During the same period, district enrollments decreased an average 1 percent statewide, reducing Maine's public school enrollment from 188,133 students to 186,994 students.

In general, districts where property values fell and student populations rose fared better than districts where property values increased and student populations fell, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the state education department.

"A little change one way or another can make a big difference in funding," Connerty-Marin said.

LOSING FEDERAL MONEY

The state-aid news came as most Maine superintendents are preparing to present budgets for the 2012-13 school year that are already being squeezed. Districts are losing $39 million in federal jobs bill money, which saved many positions and programs over the last two years.

That's why school officials in Falmouth and Portland aren't breathing easy, even though their state-aid allocations are expected to increase by $1.9 million and $924,350, respectively.

Falmouth's allocation is expected to go up because its property valuation dropped 1.8 percent, from nearly $2.17 billion to $2.13 billion, and its school enrollment increased 2.5 percent, from 2,101 students to 2,155 students.

"It's better than we expected," said Dan O'Shea, finance and operations director of Falmouth schools. "But we still have to make up for a $530,000 reduction because the jobs bill money ran out."

Plus, O'Shea said, $1.6 million of Falmouth's $7.5 million state-aid allocation is going to debt service on the new Falmouth Elementary School.

(Continued on page 2)

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