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Gov's Proposal to Flat Fund State Aid to Local Schools Raises Concerns

Mal Leary

AUGUSTA, Maine - After Medicaid, the state spends more money on funding for elementary and secondary education than any other budget area.

Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget basically flat funds General Purpose Aid to education. Lawmakers on two key committees are raising concerns over the proposal.

This year, schools across the state are getting $879 million in state aid to help pay for the cost of running the schools. Local municipalities are collecting over $1 billion in property tax revenues to pay for the rest of the cost. Acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardins acknowledges that the budget amounts to flat funding from the state.

"That subsidy amount has risen in this budget from $879 million to $888 million, so an increase of $9 million," Desjardins says, "and when you calculate that, it’s almost a $900 million budget or subsidy - it’s effectively just under 1 percent, which is effectively flat funded."

And Desjardins says even that small increase in GPA is less than it appears. He says the governor has proposed a new funding mechanism for charter schools that will fund them directly.

"Effectively, charter schools - both their state and local share - will be paid by the state directly to the charter school," he says. "No longer will it be to the local school who then writes a check to the charter school, and the local school will no longer have to pay the local share for the charter school."

That will use up $6 million of the $9 million in additional GPA funds. That concerns Rep. Joyce Maker, a Republican from Calais who serves on the Education Committee.

"I am a big supporter of charter schools, but what we are overall doing is taking away from all schools for the ones going to the charter schools," she says. "So I would think that if we are going to do this, we need to put the additional money in."

And part of the governor's budget would take money from gambling revenues now dedicated to local school aid and put it into the state’s general fund. Sen. Linda Valentino, of Saco, a Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, says that has the effect of reducing actual funding to local schools.

"That $16 million coming from the racino was supposed increase what we were giving under the GPA formula," Valentino says.

And Connie Brown, the executive director of Maine School Management, who listened to Commissioner Desjardins' presentation, says the teacher retirement costs outlined in the budget may be underfunded, and that will shift more of the cost of schools to local property taxpayers.

"The anticipated mill rate, which you heard today, is expected to go up appreciably, perhaps the highest it has ever been for schools," Brown says.

Brown says while the impact will differ from community to community, there will be an overall property tax increase. Desjardins says the budget includes a provision that will provide some incentives for schools to cooperate and reduce administrative costs of schools, but he acknowledges that it will take time to realize.