WESTBROOK — With additional funding for education approved in the new state budget, most area school districts are expecting to use that shot in the arm to provide property tax relief to residents.
In all, the new state budget provides school districts across Maine with an additional $48.4 million this fiscal year and $113.6 million for fiscal year 2019.
But even with the knowledge that more state support for education is coming over the next biennium, local school districts say there are still some unknowns.
Those include changes to the school funding formula, which may put even more weight on enrollments, as well as the overall municipal valuations for each district.
Another change is the required creation of School Management and Leadership Centers, which provides incentives and encouragement for school districts to consolidate a variety of administrative functions.
Robert Hanson, the commissioner of education, has been authorized to create between nine and 12 new centers that will be established through inter-local agreements, according to the Maine School Management Association.
In addition, by the 2021 fiscal year, only school districts participating in a regional leadership center would be eligible to receive any state funding for system administration costs.
The functions to be included in the leadership centers range from accounting and payroll to procurement and transportation, to technology to food service planning and purchasing and could also include superintendent services.
“We believe the (additional) funding is vitally important,” Steve Bailey, executive director of the MSMA said this week. “It will give property tax relief to … our communities, who have strongly supported our school budgets over the years, and restore programs that were cut or reduced.”
“The budget that just passed also directs more money to economically disadvantaged students … (but) the concern is what happens in year three,” Bailey said. “We need to be talking now about how to sustain a base of funding that supports schools going forward.”
Despite providing schools in Maine with $162 million more over the next two fiscal years, the Legislature did not enact a referendum approved by voters last November that called for a 3 percent education surtax on those making $200,000 or more per year.
The goal of the surtax was to ensure that school districts received 55 percent of their total funding from the state going forward, with the goal of reducing the burden on local property taxpayers for school costs.
Under the state budget, school districts are required to put at least 50 percent of the new education subsidy toward tax relief, unless voters gave the districts prior approval to spend the money differently during the current fiscal year.
While the majority of area districts have already agreed to put the entire amount of the new educational subsidy toward tax relief, others have different plans for how the money will be spent.
The Westbrook School District will be receiving an additional $907,782 in state subsidy for the fiscal year 2018 school budget.
Superintendent Peter Lancia said 50 percent of the increase will go to tax relief for the city. The city tax rate will now be $18.88 per $1,000 of assessed value, which is an increase of 48 cents over the current year. This 2.6 percent increase is approximately half of the originally proposed increase of 5.1 percent.
“This will help to reduce the burden for local taxpayers, and we are pleased that this will help our taxpayers,” Lancia said.
The Westbrook School Committee was scheduled to meet July 19 to allocate the other half of the funds. Lancia said some of the funds must go to Maine Care Seed costs.
He said he would be proposing two ways to use the remaining funds. The first would be to hire an additional ESL (English as a second language) teacher for Westbrook Middle School. Lancia’s other idea would be to place the funds in a reserve account for unexpected instructional costs.
Gorham School Superintendent Heather Perry said Gorham will receive an additional $549,616 in state subsidy as a result of the new budget passed by the state on July 3.
Gorham will now receive $19.2 million from the state in the overall $37.4 million school budget approved by the Town Council and town voters in a referendum last month.
Town Council Chairman Michael Phinney said Tuesday that when the board passed the school budget it said any extra funds would go to reduce the property tax burden.
“With these additional monies, the school’s impact on the local mil (tax) rate will drop from what was anticipated to be an increase of 67 cents to now just 32 cents,” Perry said.
The impact figures are based on a projected tax base increase of $10 million for the town.
The Gray-New Gloucester school district is receiving about $559,000 more state subsidy than anticipated by the school budget passed in June.
SAD 15 Superintendent Craig King said that while he wasn’t particularly surprised by the additional state funding, the district took a conservative approach in the budget process and planned to work with less state support.
“You can’t build a budget on money you hope you’re going to get,” King said.
The SAD 15 finance committee and school board were each scheduled to have a meeting on July 19 to discuss options for the additional state funding.
King said that those options include returning funds to the district’s fund balance, supporting infrastructure maintenance and projects, or preparing for long-range goals including upcoming contract negotiations with staff. King said that dedicating the state subsidy to the fund balance would provide indirect tax relief to local residents.
According to King, who said he is trying to stay neutral in the discussion, the finance committee will make recommendations but the final decision will rest with the board.
“Ultimately, it will be the full board that will make determination,” King said.
In the Windham-Raymond school district, the state subsidy is about $664,000 above what was anticipated. An article included in the approved RSU 14 budget gives the Windham-Raymond school board the authority to allocate the additional state funds in several ways. According to the article, the board can increase school expenditures, contribute to the reserve fund, or decrease the impact on local tax payers.
SAD 6, which includes the towns of Buxton, Hollis, Limington, Standish and Frye Island, is receiving over $1 million more in state subsidies than anticipated. According to district business manager of finance and operations William Brockman, that funding will be put toward local tax reduction.
SAD 61, which includes the towns of Bridgton, Casco, Naples and Sebago, is getting about $110,000 more in state subsidy than initially expected. District finance coordinator Sherrie Small said that SAD 61 doesn’t usually receive increases like this, but that the state’s focus this year on economically disadvantaged students helped the district.
Small said that the district “didn’t expect it, but I’m not particularly surprised” because of where the state targeted funding.