PORTLAND — With additional funding for education approved in the new state budget, most area school districts are expecting to use that shot in the arm to provide property tax relief to residents.
A few, like Portland, South Portland and Brunswick, however, may use a portion of the new subsidy to restore items that were cut from their original school spending packages.
Portland was the big winner among the communities covered by The Forecaster, while Regional School Unit 5, which includes Freeport, received the least of the amount reallocated.
Portland got $2.7 million more in funding, while RSU 5 received less than $169,000 in additional money.
In all, the new state budget provides school districts across Maine with an additional $48.4 million this fiscal year and $113.6 million for fiscal year 2019.
But even with the knowledge that more state support for education is coming over the next biennium, local school districts say there are still some unknowns.
Those include changes to the school funding formula, which may put even more weight on enrollments, as well as the overall municipal valuations for each district.
Another change is the required creation of School Management and Leadership Centers, which provides incentives and encouragement for school districts to consolidate a variety of administrative functions.
Robert Hanson, the commissioner of education, has been authorized to create between nine and 12 new centers that will be established through inter-local agreements, according to the Maine School Management Association.
In addition, by the 2021 fiscal year, only school districts participating in a regional leadership center would be eligible to receive any state funding for system administration costs.
The functions to be included in the leadership centers range from accounting and payroll to procurement and transportation, to technology to food service planning and purchasing and could also include superintendent services.
“We believe the (additional) funding is vitally important,” Steve Bailey, executive director of the MSMA said this week. “It will give property tax relief to … our communities, who have strongly supported our school budgets over the years, and restore programs that were cut or reduced.”
“The budget that just passed also directs more money to economically disadvantaged students … (but) the concern is what happens in year three,” Bailey said. “We need to be talking now about how to sustain a base of funding that supports schools going forward.”
Despite providing schools in Maine with $162 million more over the next two fiscal years, the Legislature did not enact a referendum approved by voters last November that called for a 3 percent education surtax on those making $200,000 or more per year.
The goal of the surtax was to ensure that school districts received 55 percent of their total funding from the state going forward, with the goal of reducing the burden on local property taxpayers for school costs.
Under the state budget, school districts are required to put at least 50 percent of the new education subsidy toward tax relief, unless voters gave the districts prior approval to spend the money differently during the current fiscal year.
While the majority of area districts have already agreed to put the entire amount of the new educational subsidy toward tax relief, others have different plans for how the money will be spent.
Brunswick is getting an additional $630,000, which brings the current operating budget to $38 million.
Earlier this year the Town Council approved a plan that would earmark any additional state funding for various purposes.
The first $400,000 will go toward restoring school programming. The next $200,000 goes to property tax relief, and the remaining $30,000 will be rolled over into the School Department’s general fund.
The restored school programs are freshmen sports, a police officer at Brunswick Junior High, a curriculum coordinator, and several teaching positions, which have all been approved by the School Board.
Even with the extra funding coming in fiscal year 2019, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said, “next year will be another battle (because) next year’s subsidy is unknown.”
The Cape Elizabeth schools received more than $319,000 more in state aid, all of which will be applied to offsetting property taxes, according to Howard Colter, the interim superintendent.
He called the state subsidy increase “absolutely welcomed news.”
Falmouth received about $400,000 more in state aid, which will reduce the school’s share of the town property tax rate increase from 68 cents to 50 cents per $1,000 of valuation, said Dan O’Shea, the School Department finance director.
“We have committed to putting the entire additional amount toward property tax relief,” O’Shea said. With the additional funds, Falmouth’s total school spending package for the current fiscal year is nearly $35.8 million.
RSU 1, which includes the city of Bath, along with surrounding coastal communities, will see an increase in state aid of about $554,000.
Superintendent Patrick Manuel said the district’s Board of Directors will discuss what to do with the extra funds during its meeting Monday, July 24.
Half the extra funds may be required to go toward tax relief, Manuel said, noting that “we need to verify that with our attorneys.” Once that’s clear, he said the board would have a discussion and vote on how to spend the remainder.
RSU 5, which includes Freeport, Durham and Pownal, got an additional nearly $169,000 in state aid, according to Michelle Lickteig, the district’s director of finance and human resources.
The entire amount will go toward property tax relief, she said.
Even with more than $330,000 in added state aid, School Administrative District 75, which includes Cumberland and North Yarmouth, is still experiencing a budget shortfall of about $118,000.
Superintendent Jeff Porter initiated a budget freeze that’s designed to save the district more than $200,000 and allow it to put money back into the general fund.
SAD 75, which includes Topsham and Harpswell, will see a $530,960 increase in state aid.
“We’re very, very pleased with (this) outcome,” Mark Conrad, the district’s business manager, said.
The Board of Directors will “be looking in the coming days for guidance from either the Department of Education or the Maine School Management Association … to determine what our options are,” he said, adding the board will make the ultimate decision on how to use the additional funds.
Portland, which is the largest school district in the state, received a little more than $2.7 million in additional state aid.
Alicia Gardiner, the district’s executive director of budget and finance, said when they approved the budget earlier this year, school officials had already anticipated getting at least $1 million more from the state.
Filling that hole, she said, means the Portland schools are really only seeing a benefit of about $1.7 million more. She said the School Board will meet Aug. 1 to discuss what to do with the extra funding.
During the June 13 school budget referendum, voters gave the board approval to spend any additional state aid on programming, tax relief or to go toward the district’s reserve fund, Gardiner said.
She said any recommendations on how to use the additional education subsidy will also go through the City Council Finance Committee, as well as the School Board.
Overall, Gardiner said, “we’re thrilled” with the extra money.
Residents in Scarborough go to the polls July 25 for a second try at approving a school budget for the 2018 fiscal year.
The new proposal is $47.1 million, which is $236,000 less than the school spending package voters rejected June 13.
Scarborough is one of the few districts that will continue to see a reduction in its education subsidy under the new state budget.
The town will see an overall loss in state aid of $1.4 million, according to Superintendent Julie Kukenberger.
South Portland is getting a little more than $1 million in additional education funding.
Superintendent Ken Kunin called the extra subsidy a positive development, adding that at least 50 percent of the additional money will go toward property tax relief.
Kunin said he will meet with the School Board and City Council about the property tax reductions and other possible uses for the extra money, most likely before the end of July.
He said some of the new funding could be used to pay for items originally scheduled to be paid for with reserve funds, such as technology upgrades.
Yarmouth is getting about $321,000 more in state aid and all of that will go toward property tax relief, according to Superintendent Andrew Dolloff.
“I’m pleased to say that we are committed to ensuring that 100 percent of any additional state funds we receive will be used for that purpose,” Dolloff said.
“The School Committee made that commitment prior to the state budget being settled because we believe state funds for education are intended to relieve local communities of operating costs for their schools … the funds aren’t intended to allow school districts to stockpile reserves or complete special projects,” he added.