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Who Wins, Who Loses In Allocation of Maine's Education Subsidies

Brian Bechard
Maine Public
Pedro Zamarro's Spanish immersion first grade class in Portland.

Maine school districts learned Wednesday how much state funding they will be getting from the state this year, a crucial factor administrators use to calculate their districts' annual budgets.  

The yearly allocations are based on the state budget passed in July. That bill included an increase of $162 million for education funding, for a grand total of $1.1 billion.

The state doles out the funds according to a complex formula that involves things such as local property valuations and taxes, student enrollment, and the number of special needs students, among other factors. The budget enacted in July - in addition to increasing overall state funding - made some changes to that funding formula.

Many schools will receive additional funding for areas such as special education and vocational training. The extra money also comes with an added burden that has some local officals concerned.

The state has made a lot of changes concerning how it pays for schools over the past year. Arguably the biggest change was a budget deal reached last summer that added about $162 million towards education over two years. The Department of Education says the added money is going towards various changes next year, including boosts to public preschool and students with disabilities.

Education Commissioner Robert Hasson says the ultimate goal of many of these policies is to reach disadvantaged students and provide more equity in education across the state.

"The end result is that students are able to achieve at a higher level in all areas," Hasson says.

Districts are still poring over the new figures to determine what they mean. But on the whole, it appears that many communities will see more funds for the upcoming school year, particularly those districts with higher numbers of English-language learners and students with disabilities. Lewiston, for example, will receive an additional $1.6 million for just special education.

RSU 39 in Caribou is also seeing an increase. And that's a good thing, says school Superintendent Tim Doak.

"Hopefully this is a different year for us, and hopefully we can continue to go forward with this money and put it to good use for the communities and for the schools," Doak says.

But not everyone is celebrating.

"It was widely advertised by the legislature and the (Department of Education), what a windfall local districts will be receiving this year," says Mary Nash, the superintendent of SAD 35 in Eliot, near the New Hampshire border. "That's not the case. We're down."

Nash says she's still sorting through much of the new data. But she says on its face, it's not good for her district. Nash says for many reasons, including higher property values and because SAD 35 has fewer students who are disadvantaged or are in special education programs, it could lose more than $400,000 from the state this year.

Nash says that means the district will likely be looking at a range of options to make up the shortfall, which could include cutting staff.

"That's what we're trying to do, is make the very best choices we can, given the limited options we seem to have, in terms of dollars," Nash says.

Other school officials say the increase in state funding comes with another challenge, too. This year, the state has increased the local property tax rate that towns must pay in order to receive the full state subsidy. That has some school officials nervous about approaching residents for even more money.

In Lewiston, Superintendent Bill Webster says he's thankful for an increase in funding from the state. But in order to receive all the funds, the city may need to increase some taxes by as much as five percent.

"And in Lewiston's case, that's an extra million dollars that has to be raised locally," Webster says.

Districts will have the next few months to plan out their budgets and get them approved by school boards and local voters. Many say the increased state subsidy should make that process a bit easier.

To find out how your district fared, click here.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

This story was originally published Jan. 31, 2018 at 5:09 p.m. ET.