Thursday, January 2, 2003

No help for Cape in state’s school budget plan

Published in the Current

Despite the efforts of state Education Commissioner Duke Albanese to ease the budget crunch on local school districts, Cape Elizabeth Superintendent Tom Forcella expects this year’s financial planning to be “as tight if not tighter” than last year.

In a Dec. 18 report to the state Board of Education, Albanese proposed a 2.7 percent increase in state education spending for 2003-2004, and also proposed some changes to the school funding formula for possible discussion by the Legislature.

Among them are recommendations for averaging property values and pupil counts and expanding the “circuit-breaker” program to provide relief to property taxpayers. All of them, Albanese told the board, are “to temper the effects of changes in school funding” on districts around the state.

Districts will still feel a crunch. Department of Education spokesman Yellow Light Breen said the proposed 2.7 percent increase is “not the ideal level of funding,” and he expects it to result in “some corresponding pressure on property tax.”

This budget is “a balance, to some extent, a compromise,” he said. “It’s not going to do everything that you would have wanted.”

Even then, the small increase may not get past a Legislature armed with sharpened pencils. Breen said, “we do have tremendous support for education in Maine,” but even so, “it’s going to be a stretch for the Legislature to find the 2.7 percent.”

No more dough
If they do, it still won’t be enough. “I don’t think any of the recommendations are going to help,” Forcella said.

And the increased money in the state pool will not give any more to Cape’s budget.

“Without bringing additional funds in, I don’t think there will be much help for towns like Cape Elizabeth,” Forcella said.

Albanese presented two budget models to the state board, each with the same bottom line but different splits between what the state pays and the cities and towns pick up.

The difference is in how the state decides what it will fund. The traditional method provides a flat percentage of a district’s past expenditure, according to Breen. There is no evaluation, Breen said, of what the money was spent on, or if it was too much or too little money for the district’s needs.

The Legislature required Albanese to explore the second model, called “essential programs and services,” to see how that would improve the educational system in the state. Some schools, it was thought, would benefit from support for basic services they now have trouble providing.

It will also provide a forum for evaluating what schools spend, in terms of salaries and services provided. Schools with very high teacher-to-student ratios, for example, would come under scrutiny in such a review.

Breen said the state currently is meeting “43 percent or so” of the grand total of education costs, but without any idea what that money is being used for, or if it could be put to better use.

Cape, though, won’t see any additional money under an essential programs review. “We already provide those services,” Forcella said.

Breen said the new funding proposal will help all districts “eventually. ”

Upping the stakes
“Essential programs will do a lot to revamp the formula,” Breen said. But districts, like Cape’s, with flat or decreasing student populations, will still get less funding each year. “A lot of those elements are still driven on a per-pupil basis,” he said.

Cape also has increasing property values, and the role of those numbers in the formula are unlikely to change.

“We will still be applying some measure of local ability to pay – local wealth,” Breen said. The way the state calculates “ability to pay” is mostly – about 85 percent – based on townwide property valuation, while the remaining 15 percent is based on household income.

Statewide, many towns will feel a pinch. The state’s overall property assessment is up 9.8 percent this year, leading to what Breen called a “significant redistribution of school subsidy. ”

Albanese’s proposals, Breen said, are attempts to “temper” those changes by averaging over three years. He also said Southern Maine is not alone in facing school funding pressure.

“Whatever the trends are in Southern Maine tend to work their way up the interstate over time,” Breen said.

The school funding formula, he said, is not the place to fix property-tax problems. “The funding formula is basically designed – and I think has to be designed – to measure the wealth of an entire community,” Breen said.

Relieving pressure on individual property taxpayers, he said, should come from elsewhere – a circuit-breaker program, for example.

With the schools, “it’s the community that is being subsidized,” Breen said, meaning that the community as a whole should be assessed.

Pressure on Cape schools is only increasing. The district is looking at continuing demand for special education services and higher standards for high school graduation coming down the pike.

“The expectations have become greater and the money has become less,” Forcella said.

Another example of spending pressure on local districts without corresponding funds from the state, he said, is the laptop program.

“It’s a great idea without any funding,” Forcella said.

Breen defended the program, saying the total package the state gave the schools, including equipment and support services, “is pretty rich.” The state is also providing free training for teachers. “The local impact has tended to be a very small fraction of what the free stuff is,” Breen said.

Because of the cost, though, Breen said, the laptop program was not mandatory. Schools could opt in or out.

He urged local superintendents and tech coordinators to contact the Department of Education tech staff as they develop cost estimates. State staff may be able to help share information between districts to keep costs low.