Greater Portland has few winners, many losers in school funding forecast

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AUGUSTA — While some greater Portland school districts can expect significant increases in state dollars, most others are likely to receive a lot less education aid in fiscal year 2019.

Last week, the Maine Department of Education released its annual state funding plan for districts across the state, based on an overall $1.1 billion education budget approved by the Legislature last session.

Many area districts will see sharp drops in their state allocations because of changes that were made to the funding formula, including calculating local valuation based on a two-year span, instead of a three-year period.

In addition, the state is reducing the amount it will provide to school departments for system-wide administration: $92 per pupil in 2019, compared with the current $135 per pupil.

Several school officials also said a change in the way the state pays for technical high schools will have a negative impact on their funding. The Department of Education is now providing direct funding to those regional centers, instead of having the money pass through the local budgets.

In a press release, the Department of Education said “many of these (funding) changes were made to both increase funds to education and to target more funds toward classroom expenditures.”

It’s long been an argument of Gov. Paul LePage that school districts spend too much on administration costs, which is why the state is now encouraging schools to collaborate and regionalize those expenses.

Although Mainers passed a referendum in November 2016 that required a 3 percent surcharge on those earning more than $200,000 a year to help pay for education, the Legislature failed to implement the measure.

Even so, the Department of Education last week said the state’s share of the cost of education grew to just over 53 percent for the upcoming fiscal year, which runs from July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2019 – a 1 percent increase in spending.

Under the new state subsidy numbers, Scarborough will see a 28 percent increase, from $2.1 million to $2.7 million, and Westbrook gets a more than 17 percent increase, from $15.6 million to $18.3 million, according to an article published Jan. 30 by the Portland Press Herald.

Meanwhile, Cape Elizabeth will experience a 40 percent drop, from $2.1 million this year to $1.3 million next year. South Portland and Yarmouth will decline almost 11 percent. Funding for Falmouth will drop 8 percent, the Press Herald story said.

Cape Elizabeth interim Superintendent of Schools Howard Colter this week said “Clearly, this is a serious cut for us, We did not see it coming .”

He said his goal for the upcoming budget year will be “to maintain our programs and services to the children of Cape Elizabeth” while also being “concerned with the impact of our total budget on local taxpayers.”

Mostly due to the changes in the way technical schools now receive funding, Portland Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said his district is expecting to receive about $3.2 million less in revenue from the state in fiscal 2019.

That’s even though the state’s numbers make it look like the district is receiving about $500,000 more than this year.

Botana plans to present a proposed budget to the School Board March 6. “Between now and then,” he said, “we will be working with various stakeholders to educate them on the implications of the shift in funding from the state to the local taxpayers.”

One thing that may help is that Portland, South Portland and Westbrook are exploring the possibility of forming a regional service center that would allow the three districts to share the costs of English language learner services, some transportation services and staff recruitment.

In Falmouth, Superintendent Geoff Bruno said “This is the second year in a row where we have faced a significant reduction in state subsidy while maintaining steady enrollment. The exact number is $701,187 less.

“We work hard to be efficient with our resources … and adhere to a transparent and collaborative budget process,” Bruno added, “(but) it’s a significant challenge to budget effectively when you are unable to make reliable assumptions on state subsidy amounts from one year to the next.”

The drop in revenue, he said, “puts our new budget requests at risk, as well as our current programming. Last year we eliminated all new budget requests and focused our efforts on preventing cuts in positions or programs.”

“This year, our leadership team is(working to) build a lean budget with some critical new requests that will positively impact learning in all schools,” Bruno continued. “Despite the cut in funding, we feel it’s our duty to present a thoughtful and well-justified budget outlining the resources we need to best serve our students.”

Yarmouth Superintendent Andrew Dolloff said early estimates are his schools will lose more than $489,000, which represents about a 10 percent decline from $4.63 million, to $4.14 million. The frustration, he said, is that the Yarmouth schools had originally anticipated an increase in state funding.

School Administrative District 51, which serves Cumberland and North Yarmouth, is also expecting a loss in its subsidy; a $442,000 difference from the $11.3 million it received in aid to education for the current fiscal year.

Superintendent Jeff Porter said Feb. 2 that “We’re certainly not anywhere far enough to say how that (loss in revenue is) going to impact our overall budget.”

School Administrative District 75, which includes the communities of Topsham and Harpswell, is expecting a nearly $1 million loss in state subsidy, according to Business Manager Mark Conrad.

Like many of the other communities seeing a loss in state aid to education, Gorham Superintendent Heather Perry said her district is slated to lose out “due mostly to our increasing property values.”

She said when comparing what Gorham received for the current fiscal year, its loss in revenue will be $1.2 million. Along with that drop in state funding, Perry said Gorham is seeing increasing student enrollment.

Brunswick schools will also lose under the new funding formula. Business Manager Kelly Wentworth said most of the reduction is “directly related to the change in how career and technical education funds are distributed.”

Like Portland, Brunswick is exploring the possibility of regionalizing some services with surrounding districts.

School Administrative District 6, which includes Buxton and Standish, is also expecting a loss in state aid of 4.6 percent, according to the Press Herald. Superintendent Paul Penna could not be reached for comment before The Forecaster’s deadline.

Superintendent Ken Kunin this week said South Portland schools are looking at a nearly $420,000 shortfall in state aid.

The reduction in funding will halt the expansion of the district’s pre-kindergarten program, according to Kunin, who said the School Department can’t afford to grow the program with local tax dollars alone.

Like Dolloff in Yarmouth, Kunin said the numbers released by the state are preliminary “and a lot could change between now and April,” when the Legislature is set to adjourn.

Staff writers Elizabeth Clemente, Juliette Laaka, Alex Lear and Joceyln Van Saun contributed to this report.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.