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.

Portland faces a $2.1 million hole in the wake of the jobs bill, as well as rising costs in nearly every budget category and the prospect of dwindling revenues on the municipal side.

Portland's state-aid allocation is expected to increase, from $13.2 million to $14 million, because its school enrollment decreased less than 1 percent, from 6,997 students to 6,953 students, and its property valuation fell 3.7 percent, from $8.2 billion to $7.9 billion.

"I feel like we're going into the toughest budget year ever," said Kate Snyder, Portland's school board chairwoman.

The finance committees of Portland's school board and City Council are scheduled to meet Thursday to discuss mutual concerns. Portland Superintendent Jim Morse is expected to deliver his followup to this year's $91.6 million budget on March 6.

SOME DISTRICTS TAKE A HIT

Prospects are just as tough or tougher in districts where state-aid allocations are going down, including Brunswick, where the property valuation dropped 2.7 percent, from $2.2 billion to $2.1 billion, and school enrollment dropped 4 percent, from 2,568 students to 2,463 students.

With the naval air base closing, the district will lose $1 million in federal impact aid that it used to get for educating children of people who lived or worked on the base, said Superintendent Paul Perzanoski.

School consolidation also continues to take a toll, even though Brunswick has two fewer school buildings. Students from neighboring Durham now attend Freeport High School as part of Regional School Unit 5, which has reduced tuition dollars from $1 million per year for 180 students to $220,000 this year for the remaining 28 students, Perzanoski said. The annual tuition for the remaining nine Durham students is expected to drop to $70,000 in the coming year.

Plus, Brunswick faces a $693,000 hole after the jobs bill, Perzanoski said. The district has eliminated 90 positions in the last three years, to the point that its current $33.3 million budget is lower than the $33.6 million budget in 2007-08.

"The impact for us is cumulative," Perzanoski said. "We're going to have to cut programs and look at deeper staff cuts. This is a catastrophic situation. The community is going to have to make some tough decisions."

Cape Elizabeth's state-aid allocation is expected to drop $272,286, from $2.3 million to $2 million, in part because its school enrollment dropped nearly 1 percent, from 1,696 students to 1,683 students, while its property valuation held steady at $1.8 billion. Cape's state-aid loss pales in comparison to other districts, but it may lead to some tough decisions nonetheless.

"That's on top of a $452,000 revenue reduction because of the jobs bill," said Pauline Aportria, Cape's school business manager. Superintendent Meredith Nadeau will present her 2012-13 budget to the school board on Feb. 28.

Westbrook's $607,000 decrease in state aid compounds a $588,000 revenue reduction after the jobs bill, an expected $1 million spending increase for contractual salary growth and a possible $250,000 increase in fuel costs.

Superintendent Gousse plans to deliver his follow-up to this year's $31 million budget to the Westbrook School Committee on Wednesday. He's anticipating a $500,000 savings from the proposed closing of the Prides Corner School, but he wouldn't say whether additional positions or programs will be cut.

"I will do my best to do what's responsible," Gousse said. "We were preparing to tighten our belts, but how is this formula fair to Westbrook students and taxpayers?"

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

 

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