Thursday, February 20, 2003

State cuts local school aid

Published in the Current; co-written with Kate Irish Collins and Josh Williamson

School districts across the state are getting their first look at next year’s state funding for education, and locally it doesn’t look good.

Cape is looking at a reduction of $486,000 in state aid for education and Scarborough is looking at a cut of a little over $600,000. South Portland will actually see a $500,000 increase this year, but the total percentage of the school budget funded by the state will drop to 5 percent, the lowest allowed under state regulation.

The tough budget news comes as the Secretary of State’s Office certified on Tuesday a referendum question that would require the state to pay more to communities in education aid.

The proposal, proposed and backed by the Maine Municipal Association, would require 55 percent of total education expenditures statewide to be funded in the state budget.

The Legislature can either approve the proposal itself or put the question out to voters in November.

The education aid numbers, released this week by the state’s Department of Education, are based on the governor’s proposed budget, but have not yet been through the Legislature’s committee process or been voted on by lawmakers. They provide, however, the first look at how district budgets could be affected.

“This is the starting point for the discussion,” said Jim Watkins at the Department of Education.

Cape Elizabeth Business Manager Pauline Aportria said the expected $486,000 cut this year is on top of the nearly $450,000 cut in 2001-2002.

“It’s going to make life very difficult,” said Superintendent Tom Forcella.

He said the Town Council has asked the schools to keep any budget increase from causing a tax increase of more than 2 percent.

Replacing the money lost from the state with locally raised property taxes would require a 64-cent increase in taxes in Cape, an increase of 3.8 percent.

There is a $3 million “cushion” available to soften the blow, which has yet to be divided among schools throughout the state, but Forcella said it is unclear what that will mean.

Last year there was a $4 million cushion, of which Cape got $200,000.

In Scarborough, the superintendent’s office was all set to present a budget to the Board of Education based on the assumption the town would get the same amount of state aid for education as it did this year.

“There’s no doubt this is a lot for us,” said Herb Hopkins, the school finance director, about the now anticipated cut of $600,000 or more.

“We were hoping for flat funding because of our increasing school enrollment,” he said. Scarborough is expecting an additional 100 students to enroll in the fall.

On Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m., at Town Hall, the school department plans to hold a public hearing on next year’s school budget, which as it currently stands would total $28.1 million. This represents a 12.6 percent increase over the current school budget, or an additional $2.4 million.

Scarborough Superintendent William Michaud was out of the office this week, and Board of Education Chairman David Beneman was reluctant to comment on the anticipated reduction in state aid, arguing that there has been no formal announcement from the Department of Education.

“The school department certainly did budget planning on the assumption that there would be no increase in general purpose aid, even though we’re going to have an additional 100 students,” Beneman said. “Any decrease in revenue doesn’t affect the cost of running the schools,” however, he added.

South Portland, which lost $1.1 million last year, will see a $500,000 increase this year, bringing state aid up to $2.77 million. However, the total percentage of the school budget funded by the state will drop.

Last year, the state’s $2.2 million contribution was 8 percent of the city’s school budget, but budget increases due largely to the debt service from five elementary school projects mean that even with the aid increase, the state is covering just 5 percent now, the lowest percentage allowed under the funding formula.

“I think we are the only municipality in the state that is a minimum receiver that I am aware, certainly among the larger school districts,” said Polly Ward, business manager for the South Portland school department. “We get so little state aid that we really couldn’t get any less.”

South Portland’s tax base is roughly 65 percent commercial and 35 percent residential, accounting largely for the low funding from the state.