BELFAST – The long-awaited Department of Education subsidy reports for the coming school year were released this week and school administrators are scrambling to understand what they will mean for their local budgets.
The state plans to contribute $830 million to education during the coming year. And, while some of the state’s 286 school units will see an increase in their state subsidy, others will barely break even.
The subsidy figures are based on the department’s Essential Programs and Services, or EPS, model that was developed two years ago and will be implemented for the first time in the 2005-2006 school year.
When it mailed the figures to the superintendents on Tuesday, the education department emphasized that the figures were preliminary and could change through legislative action. The Legislature has yet to approve the state budget and the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will be taking another look at the EPS model during the coming months.
EPS was designed to define an exact percentage of state financial support to help local schools provide the educational tools needed to meet new state standards, called Maine Learning Results. The state will provide about 43 percent of the overall cost of education during the coming year.
While acknowledging that his department will fare well in next year’s budget, Bangor Superintendent of Schools Robert Erving said he and his colleagues were still trying to understand the details in the EPS calculations received Wednesday.
Erving said he was looking forward to next week when the Maine School Management Association, which is the superintendents’ advisory group, conducts an informational seminar on the EPS model.
“This form is a new experience for all superintendents,” Erving said Wednesday. “It doesn’t make a difference if you are a veteran, or one just coming in, this is all new ground. There’s no manual on it and there’s been no preliminary briefing. This is a brand-new experience.”
SAD 28 Superintendent of Schools Patricia Hopkins, who also heads the five-town district for Camden Hills High School in Rockport, said she still was reviewing the figures.
Hopkins said SAD 28 would benefit from the fact that EPS will provide 84 percent of special education costs to a district that received no subsidy in the past, but that she still needed time to work the numbers. Hopkins also said she was looking forward to next week’s Maine School Management orientation session.
“I’d say it’s still too early to tell,” Hopkins said Thursday. “We still have lots of questions. I’m anxious to attend the meeting.”
Like SAD 28 in Camden, School Union 98 in Bar Harbor was also a zero-subsidy district when it came to funding for special education. Now that the state will be picking up 84 percent of that cost, Superintendent Ron Liebow said most of the additional $555,000 in subsidy would be used to lower taxes.
“The majority of that will be used to lower assessments and be returned to the community in the form of increased revenue,” Liebow said Thursday. “In that sense it is tax relief because it is more state aid.”
Over in Belfast, SAD 34 Superintendent Bob Young was less enthusiastic. Young said the $100,000 in additional subsidy provided through EPS would not even cover budget increases caused by higher teacher salaries, health care and fuel costs. For that reason, Young said, he welcomed the Legislature’s willingness to consider making revisions to the EPS formula.
“If they really look at it and make some changes I think that will help everybody out and redistribute some of the money,” Young said Thursday. “It’s a question of fairness and distribution.”
Young said he believed that EPS should have been subjected to a “couple of dry runs” instead of being implemented immediately. He suggested that the formula “came up short” in the case of the state’s smaller, rural school districts.
“We gained a little bit in the sense of dollars but we definitely didn’t stay up with the cost of growth and costs,” said Young. “They didn’t test it [EPS] enough and I think that is why there clearly are some problems. When you see the rural, Down East and northern districts get annihilated and Freeport and Cumberland get millions, you know there are problems.”