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Maine school aid: Catastrophe for some, relief for others

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Maine school aid: Catastrophe for some, relief for others

AUGUSTA — There are clear winners and losers in the Maine Department of Education's Feb. 2 announcement of revised preliminary state subsidies for public education.

Districts including Portland, Falmouth, South Portland and Regional School Unit 1 are all receiving at least $900,000 more from the state than last year, while others, like Brunswick, stand to lose at least that much.

DOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin said valuation and enrollment are the two biggest factors in determining state education subsidies.

Connerty-Marin said districts where property values fell and student populations rose fared better than districts where property values increased and student populations declined.

State education officials had warned districts that subsidies could change when the department released preliminary numbers last fall. Connerty-Marin said current estimates are "much closer to the real numbers" because the figures are now based on enrollment data.

Some uncertainty remains because the Legislature has yet to pass the $914 million state education budget, an increase of $19 million over last year.

But for Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski, the most recent numbers are a cause for concern.

"It's a catastrophic event," said Perzanoski, whose district would lose $1.2 million, the most of any district in the state.

Brunswick has cut close to 90 jobs and closed an elementary school to cope with funding cuts in the past two years.

"We're basically down to the critical masses at this point," Perzanoski said.

Even among districts that are receiving more money, few new programs and services are being planned because of the loss of $39 million in federal jobs bill money.

Ruth Moore, business manager of RSU 1 in Bath, said the extra $1.4 million her district is receiving will help soften the cuts that were in store for the upcoming year.

"We were looking at originally, approximately $1 million in cuts that had to be made in order to come in at a level that the (school) board thought would be appropriate to the local taxpayers," Moore said.

Now, she said, they can reduce the cuts by half that amount.

Kate Snyder, chairman of the Portland School Committee, said the city must deal with a $2.1 million hole from the loss of federal jobs funds. While the School Department stands to receive an increase of $924,000 from the state, for a total subsidy of more than $14 million, she said it is too early to tell how that will impact the budget.

"Of course, we're happy to see our state subsidy go up, that will really help," Snyder said.

She said the joint city and school Finance Committee will meet this week to begin digesting the new numbers. She said she expects the budget process to be a tough one.

"We've had various types of federal money over the past couple years," Snyder said. "To see the last of it going away presents some real challenges."

Dan O'Shea, finance and operations director for Falmouth schools, said that while the department is expecting a $1.9 million increase in state aid, school officials must still make up for $530,000 in jobs bill money that ran out.

And more than $1.5 million of the district's anticipated $7.49 million total in state aid is debt service on the new Falmouth Elementary School and does not go toward operating expenses.

"It's still pretty good to pick up $356,000," O'Shea said. "It's definitely going to help, especially given what we faced in recent years."

For many administrators, last week's numbers weren't too far off from state-funding estimates released by the DOE last September.

In Cape Elizabeth, staff had been expecting an approximately $245,000 reduction, and that number increased slightly to $272,000.

"We were hoping it wouldn't be more of a loss than what they announced in September, but we're not really surprised," said Pauline Aportria, business manager for the Cape Elizabeth School Department.

Aportria said it is too soon to tell how the reductions will impact the budget process, which also must take into consideration the loss of $452,000 in federal jobs money. Superintendent Meredith Nadeau is expected to present her initial budget request to the School Board on Feb. 28.

Other districts, like Regional School Unit 5 in Freeport, will receive about $325,000 more than expected.

But Brunswick's estimate was way off.

In the fall, the DOE told Perzanoski he could expect $243,000 more than last year. So he was shocked when he received last week's numbers.

"It's a real big swing from being told we'll probably get $243,000 more and then a few months later be losing $1.2 million," Perzanoski said.

Connerty-Marin said Brunswick schools had a "significant reduction" in enrollment because of the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station; the projected state aid for next year was based on enrollment of 130 more students than are actually in school.

To soften the blow, he said the state is using a three-year average of enrollment for Brunswick and other districts that have seen large enrollment declines.

As districts across the state begin their budget processes, some administrators are still questioning how much state funding will actually come through.

While O'Shea said he sees the numbers released last week as positive, he said uncertainty remains and cited Gov. Paul LePage's recent comments about closing schools to make up for a budget gap in the Department of Health and Human Services.

"It definitely lets you know he's looking (at education) because there aren't very many places to make cuts," O'Shea said. "I'm very nervous. It's nice to get preliminary numbers, but they're very tentative and movable."

Gillian Graham can be reached at 781-3661 ext.125 or ggraham@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @grahamgillian. Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext.123 or eguerin@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter:@guerinemily.