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How Maine Schools Are Planning To Use An Additional $180M In State Funding - And Why Taxpayers May Benefit

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Robbie Feinberg
/
Maine Public

School funding is never far from politics as the state and its cities and towns try to figure out how to pay for the best education for Maine children, and who should pay how much. Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz talked to Reporter Robbie Feinberg about the millions of dollars that are flowing into schools next year.

Irwin Gratz: So as part of the budget passed earlier this month, one of the big pieces highlighted by the governor was an increase in state education funding: that for the first time in years, the state will pay for 55% of the total cost of education in the state. What is the big deal about that 55%?

Robbie Feinberg: To understand this, you've actually got to go back nearly two decades -- to 2004. That's when voters in Maine first passed a referendum to require the state to pay 55% of the costs of education. And local officials will tell you that 55% makes a big difference. They say if the state only covers about 40 or 45% of the cost, that means local towns may have to make up the difference by raising property taxes, and it could lead to cuts to programs or teachers.

Voters passed that referendum in 2004, and if you fast-forward to 2016, voters once again passed another ballot measure calling on the state to pay 55%. And while school funding has definitely gone up in recent years, it still has not reached that number. So for this budget to add more than $180 million over two years to education had a lot of teachers and school administrators cheering.

So $180 million is a lot of money -- what are schools actually doing with it all?

Some schools are adding a few positions here and there, such as keeping on custodians they hired during the pandemic. But by far, the biggest way that schools say they’re spending this money is by indirectly giving some -- or all of it -- right back to the taxpayers. A lot of school departments are saying that their local taxpayers have had to really take on a lot of the school funding burden in recent years, so their message now with this extra money is not to use it to add anything to the current budget, but instead to take that half-a-million or million dollars from the state and use it to help lower property taxes for residents.

Andrew Carlton, with RSU 4, northeast of Lewiston, says that’ll hopefully make a pretty big impact where he is. Towns in his district, like Sabattus and Wales, don't have a big business tax base to really pull from, so it's the homeowners who really have to cover much of the property tax bill for education. So when the district received around half-a-million dollars from the state this month, the school board decided that money should all purely be used to lower property taxes.

"And it always creates goodwill, when we do that," Carlton says. "We want to take care of our communities, just like our communities take care of us."

That's nice to hear, but is every town getting lots of money from the new budget?

There is actually is a huge range in what schools are getting. Some are getting up to around $6 million. And you've actually got some schools that aren't getting anything.

Nothing?

Yeah, no money at all from this. That's because of the state's school funding formula, which attempts to equitably distribute funding for schools across the state. It looks at several factors, such as how many students you have, where you're located, the number of English language learners in a district. Then it looks at the valuation of the property in a town or district. The idea is to get more money to schools that don't have as many resources to pay for education, and less state funding for those that do. But you wind up in a situation where some districts aren't receiving any extra money as part of the latest budget changes. And that definitely creates some frustration in certain towns.

The good thing this year, though, is that schools have received huge amounts of federal money over the past 15 months or so. That's been used to help schools deal with COVID-19 -- paying for extra teachers, more buses, improving ventilation, even all those extra laptops and Chromebooks.

So we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars in state money, hundreds of millions coming from the federal government. Do districts even know how to spend so much of this money?

Yeah, all this money has definitely come with a lot of questions and complications. All this money is great -- for now -- but what do you spend it on? And what happens when you run out? Tim Doak, the superintendent of both RSU 39 in Caribou and MSAD 20 in Fort Fairfield, said that there wasn't a lot of guidance on exactly what schools should spend the federal money on.

"It'd be like me providing an individual a brand new pair of cross-country skis, a brand new pair of boots, a brand new pair of poles. Then you, not knowing how to ski, and you've got your first ski meet in a week," Doak says. "So we've got all this money coming in, and nobody saying what's the best way to use it and what's a safe way to run a school during a pandemic."

Doak says while it was confusing, he and other district leaders have worked together to figure out how to spend this money. And a lot of them are using all those federal funds on one-time expenses, like constructing an outdoor classroom or improving the ventilation system inside a building.

What's stuck out to me when talking with both teachers and school administrators is how different the feeling around school budgets is this year compared to about five or six years ago. One example is the school district in Portland. The district has gotten a lot of money -- several million in federal funding and about 6 million extra from the supplemental budget. Superintendent Xavier Botana says because of those investments, he feels like for the first time the district is actually making investments in a lot of goals that haven't been possible for years, like adding more services for English-language learners.

"It puts us in a much better situation to look at next year and not look at, are we going to be losing $4.5 million? Or $2.5 million? Even if we just come in the same funding level as this year, that would be huge," Botana says.

Now, not every district was able to get the same amount of money as Portland this year. But there's definitely a sense of relief across several districts that they'll be in a better budget position than previous years.

Here's how additional state funding breaks down by district. Click in the search box to navigate to your district: