SAD 61 fighting state formula for funding education

By Lisa Williams Ackley
Staff Writer

School Administrative District 61 gets the rawest deal of all it seems, when it comes to how state subsidies for school systems are meted out.

Bridgton Director Laura Ordway suggested Tuesday night that the school district and the Town of Bridgton join together to form an independent committee, and seek out other area towns as well, to join in the fight to change the way state subsidies are distributed throughout Maine.

Superintendent of Schools Patrick Phillips recommended enlisting the aid of regional legislators, as well, in the effort to make school funding more equitable across the board.

The response from the Bridgton Board of Selectmen and Town Manager Mitch Berkowitz was enthusiastic, and everyone agreed it is a matter of paramount importance.

SAD 61 is comprised of the towns of Bridgton, Casco, Naples and Sebago. Currently, Bridgton’s state valuation stands at over $1 billion ($1,060,000,000); Casco’s at $644,700,000; Naples’ at $790,450,000; and Sebago’s at $424,700,000, with Sebago showing the only decrease in valuation.

“SAD 61 is being hardest hit by the EPS (Essential Programs and Services) funding system,” said Ordway. “I don’t think we, as towns, can stand for that.”

“I think the key is the things that are most detrimental for SAD 61 don’t pull us up,” Ordway said. She said it is her opinion that, “We’re at a point now, where our children are paying for this.”

The full school board was expected to vote Wednesday night (Feb. 23) on the proposed SAD 61 budget for 2011-2012. It stood at $26,121,005, as of Tuesday, Phillips said, for an increase of $904,519, or 3.59%.

That would translate to assessment increases as follows: Bridgton, $337,160, or 4.34%; Casco, $729,217, or 13.65%; Naples, $462,419, or 7.10%; and Sebago, $157,767, or 5.07%.

Historically, SAD 61 has seen a six-year average yearly loss of revenue from the state of $973,083, or a six-year total loss of revenue of $5,838,498.

The historical five-year average increase in SAD 61’s assessment to its member towns is as follows: Bridgton, $285,949; Casco, $291,005; Naples, $281,820; and Sebago, $134,794.

Ordway pointed out that the current EPS funding formula used by the Maine Department of Education is more beneficial to urban areas with larger population numbers than it is to rural areas.

“Cape Elizabeth is receiving $2.3 million, and we’re going to get less than $900,000,” said Ordway. “It’s no secret here — our (funding) equation is an undue hardship to our area. The EPS funding formula is more beneficial to urban areas. As our population declines, our ruralness does not lift us up. Over 60% of our families qualify for free or reduced lunches.”

Selectman Earl Cash asked SAD 61 Director Ordway, “What’s the school board going to do about it?”

“That’s a really good question,” Ordway replied. “We need to come together to form an independent committee, now that we have proof this (EPS funding formula) is unfair for SAD 61.”

Superintendent Phillips suggested that the school board and Bridgton selectmen enlist the help of regional legislators, in getting the message across to officials in Augusta.

“I’d certainly be able to do the legwork,” said Supt. Phillips.

“I’ll be glad to work in your shadow,” Town Manager Berkowitz told Phillips.

Berkowitz suggested enlisting the assistance of the Cumberland County Legislative delegation.

“They could go up there (to Augusta) and give them an impactual message straight forward,” said Berkowitz. “Bill Whitten gets the whole County delegation together. The best coalition would be to hit the County delegation, but also get rural delegations across county lines.”

“It was the rural communities, not urban areas, that put the current (LePage administration) government in place,” Berkowitz noted.

“The governor made the statement that he wanted to look at the EPS (funding) method,” Supt. Phillips said. “I think Laura’s statement that we have been uniquely impacted is true — we’re very different, in terms of assessed property valuation. We have a lot of waterfront property. Fifty percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The reality of the socio-economic situation (of residents) is very different…The EPS funding formula is totally based on property valuation and the number of students…Again, we have sought to understand the relative decline in subsidies.”

Additionally, the selectmen voted unanimously Feb. 22 to pay $585.96 in annual dues to join the Maine Service Centers Coalition, which this year is “advocating for the end of band-aid budget cuts funded in large part through devastating municipal revenue cuts,” according to MSCC Chairman John Bubier, the City Manager of Biddeford.

“We need your help and support to fight for a return to responsible budgets that provide appropriate school funding, honor the commitments to municipal revenue sources and address the crisis in our transportation infrastructure,” said Bubier, in his letter of invitation to the selectmen.

Supt. Phillips said financial impacts to SAD 61 this year include:

• a confirmed $359,439 reduction is state subsidy;

• an anticipated health insurance increase of $200,000;

• the ARRA (federal stimulus) funding has ended;

• the Education Jobs Bill money will be available for one more year (2011-2012), or $200,000 that was not used last year; and

• Debt Service payments start for the Lake Region High School/Vocational Center construction-renovation projects totaling $705,554.

Town Manager Berkowitz pointed out that the Bridgton area has “the highest volume of unemployment.”

“So, consequently, we’re in a death spiral, where people ask themselves, ‘Do I pay for medicine, or pay the rent, or pay for food?’”

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