Down East 2013 ©
Often lost in understanding the state's commitment to moving toward funding 55 percent of K-12 public education costs by 2009 is the caveat that the percentage goal approved through a statewide referendum would be achieved on a statewide basis, not at a local level. That funding commitment doesn't mean that the state will be picking up 55 percent of costs for all Hancock County schools. What it does mean is that most communities in our region, especially coastal communities, will be paying more - considerably more - than the state pays as public school expenses are allocated between state and local governments.
The Maine Department of Education uses valuations provided by Maine Revenue Services in calculating the local public school cost-sharing formula. Those valuations for Ellsworth increase by more than 20 percent during each of the last two years. At the same time, valuation increases statewide have been up by more than 13 percent. Under the Essential Programs and Services formula used to calculate state school subsidies, these higher valuations are forcing so-called "high-value" communities to fund more and more of their own school costs, which reduces the state's share of local school budgets. The Department of Education estimates that one in five Maine communities is now a "minimum subsidy receiver" because of high local property values. Bar Harbor is already among them, and school officials in Ellsworth see that dubious status as only a matter of time.
In Ellsworth, the 2007-08 school budget that takes effect on July 1 totals $13,914,543. Of that amount, the state is providing $4,040,308, or 29 percent. That amount is $582,142 less than the state provided for the 2006-07 school year, when the school budget totaled $13,411,608 and the state's share was 34 percent. That's due in part to Ellsworth's total valuation increase of 20 percent, from $651,250,000 in 2005 to $781,650,000 in 2006. For 2007, Ellsworth's valuation has surged another 20 percent, to $938,700,000. Looking ahead, the Ellsworth School Department projects that that the local share of the 2008-09 school budget could increase by more than $1 million.
Dwindling enrollments statewide are making a bad situation worse for those communities seeing significant increases in property taxes. While some areas, such as Ellsworth, have seen the school population grow slightly, many of Hancock County's newest residents are aging Baby Boomers and retirees from away who don't have school-age children to enroll in local public schools. Fewer students means less revenue from state subsidies based on enrollment headcounts.
Further complicating the situation is the state's new School Administrative Reorganization law, which is designed to cut administrative costs by reducing the number of school districts statewide from 290 to around 80. The new law gives school districts within Hancock County until Dec. 1 to outline to state education officials in Augusta how they plan to scrap the existing districts and form and fund new districts with enrollments of no fewer than 2,500 students. If approved by the state, those plans will be put to voters in each community affected, with towns that reject the plan facing economic penalties that will further limit state subsidies for their schools.
Beyond that shotgun marriage approach to gaining support for school district consolidation, the law's ambitious timelines call for the new, streamlined school district structure to be up and running by July 1, 2009. Hang on for the ride. At a time when runaway property valuations are converging with a statewide trend of lower enrollments, the Legislature has ordered all but the state's largest communities to dissolve their school districts, to abandon local control of their schools and to start planning new and larger school districts from scratch.
In commenting on the school district reorganization initiative, James E. Rier Jr., director of finance and operations for the Maine Department of Education, recently told an Ellsworth American reporter: "We couldn't have picked a worse time to launch something new."
We couldn't agree more.Prudent use of the public purse also found a perch at the Portland Press Herald: