Many school districts across Maine could be less dependent on local property taxes for the next school year if the Legislature supports Gov. Janet Mills’ supplementary budget proposal.

On top of $115 million in new state support for local education in the biennial budget Mills signed into law last summer, the Democrat proposed an extra $37 million for K-12 education for 2020-21 on Monday.

Mills’ office said the increase, if approved by the Legislature, would bring the state’s share of school funding costs to nearly 52 percent – up from nearly 51 percent this year – not counting state funding of teacher retirement costs.

Projections for individual school districts, released by the Maine Department of Education last week, include a roughly $600,000 increase in state funding for Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest school district.

That would give Portland schools a total of $18.2 million in state funds, up from $17.6 million in the current year. The projections are based on the governor’s budget, which still needs to be approved by the Legislature.

“It’s very good news,” Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana said.

Other southern Maine school districts that would see increases in state funding include the Brunswick School Department, which is projected to receive an additional $1.6 million for a total state allocation of $12.5 million; the Gorham School District, which would get an additional $939,527 for a total of $19.7 million; and Scarborough Public Schools, which is projected to get an additional $758,501 for a total of $4 million.

Portland has recently been looking at cost-saving measures, including a proposal to reconfigure the district’s eight mainland elementary schools, as a means of addressing long-term trends of increasing operating costs and declining state funding.

The district last month projected a $6.4 million budget gap including a $1 million loss from the state, but that was more than it should have been because of an error in how the district had been reporting staff experience levels to the state, Botana said Monday.

Personnel costs are one factor used in determining a district’s total operating costs and how much the state contributes.

“This year we had new staff doing that reporting and they accounted for staff’s full experience, not just their experience in Portland schools, which is what they had been doing previously,” Botana said. “That increased our allocation by over $1.2 million.”

Botana said he did not know how long the district has been inaccurately reporting staff experience levels to the state or what the total impact has been on state funding to the district over the years.

The city of Portland’s valuation is currently $10.5 billion, an increase of $819 million from 2019. Botana said he expects to see a continuing trend of increasing city valuation, which would mean less school funding from the state.

“What we saw this year was a one-year correction based on us reporting the data more accurately,” he said. “That won’t change, so what we expect for next year will be a decrease from what we see this year.”

Portland Board of Public Education Chair Roberto Rodriguez said he expects to have a better idea of whether the district will pursue the elementary school reconfiguration proposal, or other cost savings measures, after the next board finance committee meeting and when the superintendent presents his proposed budget to the board in March.

“I think it’s important to note this is a one-time increase,” Rodriguez said. “There’s an added sum of money that’s been put into the (the school funding formula) as part of (the governor’s) supplemental budget. In my opinion we’re still looking at a formula that might not work out in the most favorable way for districts like Portland.”

The state has a complicated school funding formula that considers several factors, including the value of a district’s property tax base, the percent of low-income students it serves and the district’s special education costs.

Under the formula, districts with a relatively valuable tax base receive less state funding and are more dependent on property tax revenue to support their budgets. Portland approved a total school budget of $117.4 million last year, with about 15 percent funded by the state.

Department of Education Commissioner Pender Makin said that Monday many of the changes districts are projected to see this year stem from changes in either student enrollment or property valuation.

In the Gorham School District, which could see almost $1 million in additional state funding next year, Superintendent Heather Perry said the increase is driven by growing student numbers, including growth of specific populations such as special education and gifted and talented students.

“It’s great to receive more funding from the state, but I would be a little bit wary,” Perry said. “Special education costs across the state are continuing to go up and that’s a little concerning. Yes, there is more money in the state budget this year and we’ve been able to reduce the minimum (tax) expectation but that’s not going to be the case every year.”

For 2020-21 the commissioner’s proposed education budget includes a drop in the minimum amount communities are expected to raise locally, from $8.28 per $1,000 of estimated property value to $8.18, despite a f5ve percent increase in total state property valuation.

“This is a tremendous commitment the governor has put forward for education,” Makin said. “It’s fundamentally connected to every one of our other state level (initiatives) from the opioid task force to the economic development 10-year plan to the work of the Children’s Cabinet and even the climate council.

“Education is integral to all of these things and I think the governor’s budget reflects a commitment to that.”


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