PORTLAND — School districts in southern and mid-coast Maine stand to lose millions in state funding next year, after a last-minute change to the way the state distributes money for essential programs and services.
The change was narrowly approved by the state Senate late in the afternoon of its last session before summer recess.
The Senate voted 17-15 June 29 to move funds from suburban and urban areas to the rural areas of the state.
Because the funding estimates are based on the fiscal 2012 budget, the amounts districts receive the following year may be greater, because more funds for schools may be made available in next year’s budget.
But urban schools will see smaller increases based on the new law.
“The (Essential Programs and Services) formula was implemented six years ago under the Baldacci administration and it has been absolutely devastating for rural school districts,” said the bill’s sponsor, Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry.
Raye said he sponsored the bill to reverse changes made six years ago that negatively impacted many of the schools in his district.
“We have towns in Washington County … that are land-rich and income-poor,” he said, adding that because the formula was based on property value, communities that had large amounts of waterfront property, but more than 50 percent of students on the federal free or reduced-cost lunch program, were expected to pay more for their children’s education than they could afford.
However, some senators said the bill was pushed through at the last minute and was intentionally delayed so those opposed would not have the votes to kill it.
Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said the bill stands to benefit its sponsor the most.
“Twenty-eight out of the 35 senators are losing money or have some split districts, where some are losing and some are gaining money,” Alfond said. “For those 28 senators who woke up (June 30) with split districts, you’re going to have to answer to those districts. You can’t hide from this vote.”
Raye’s district is estimated to see an increase of nearly $870,000, distributed between a long list of rural Washington County schools, the most of any senate district in the state.
“That’s a silly argument,” Raye said. “This was done very thoughtfully. Some communities will gain, but not as much as they did under the old formula. It’s difficult to argue the inequities should remain.”
The bill passed utilizing a rarely used procedure called “paired voting.” The procedure allows a senator who cannot be present for the vote to ask someone voting in the opposite way to pair votes. Neither vote counts, but they both go on the record.
Sens. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, and Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, paired their votes, thus cancelling Schneider’s “no” vote on the measure.
Raye said Schneider had initially told him she would be voting for the bill, but switched her vote to accommodate Jackson.
“Were she not able to pair her vote, she would have voted for it. It wouldn’t have changed the outcome,” Raye said.
Sen. Cynthia Dill, D-Cape Elizabeth, was absent from the voting.
“I told the senate president the day before the vote that I had to leave early to pick up my mother in Kittery,” Dill said.
Dill said she made it clear she opposed the bill, and accused Raye of intentionally delaying the vote until she was gone.
She said several going-away parties for secretaries were held the day before and the day of the vote, which delayed the bill until the afternoon when she was scheduled to be gone.
“I like cupcakes as much as the next person, but we should have been doing the people’s business,” she said. “I think it was intentional (to delay the vote) to embarrass some people.”
Regardless of the way the vote took place, the governor signed the bill into law at Shead High School in Eastport on Monday. The change will go into effect next year.
“This law will begin to correct an error in our educational funding formula, and will benefit our rural areas,” Gov. Paul LePage said in a prepared statement. “This is a victory for parents, students, and teachers in parts of our state like Washington County that have felt a negative impact for several years because of their smaller school districts. The system is not fair and we are attempting to make it more equitable for everyone.”
Falmouth’s superintendent of schools, Barbara Powers, said her concern is that the legislation ignores the “greater context of the Essential Programs and Services funding formula, which many of us in the field and in the legislature believe is due for full and considerate review.”
Powers said she is not yet sure what the impact of the change would be, but Senate Democrats estimate Falmouth will see a funding reduction of $242,000.
Alfond has estimated the Portland Public Schools stand to lose nearly $1 million.
“Obviously, it’s a huge concern as we move into fiscal year 2013,” Portland School Board Chairwoman Kate Snyder said. “It’s a disappointment for Portland.”
Snyder said she is concerned about how the district will cope with losing both federal funding in the form of the Jobs Bill, which was a one-year allocation to help schools keep teachers, and the new state funding formula.
Yarmouth stands to lose nearly $170,000.
“We already have to account for losing $500,000 from the federal Jobs Bill funds next year,” the town’s director of business services, Herbert Hopkins, said. “This is certainly going to make it that much more difficult. … Eventually, this is going to fall back on local taxpayers.”
Here is the estimated impact on local school districts of changes in state funding for essential programs and services, compared with funding in the 2011-2012 school year (source: Senate Democratic Office):
• Brunswick: $152,000 reduction.
• Cape Elizabeth: $198,000 reduction.
• Chebeague Island: no change.
• Falmouth: $242,000 reduction.
• Portland: $929,000 reduction.
• RSU 1: $92,000 reduction.
• RSU 5: $76,000 reduction.
• SAD 51: $222,000 reduction.
• SAD 75: $104,000 reduction.
• Scarborough: $388,000 reduction.
• South Portland: $395,000 reduction.
• Yarmouth: $169,000 reduction.