AUGUSTA – Defending what some call a "raid on profits" from the Oxford Casino, Deputy Commissioner Jim Rier said Tuesday that money from the casino which was supposed to go to public schools will go to schools next year – but not this year.
Taking $14 million of casino money now for the state's General Fund helped avoid larger curtailments to schools between now and the end of June, Rier said.
“Had we not used that, it's likely there would have been further cuts to General Purpose Aid," he said. "That $14 million prevented us from making further reductions.”
In the upcoming biennial budget that starts July 1, casino proceeds of $13.1 million in 2013-14, and $13.7 million in 2014-15, is expected to go to GPA to boost state money for public K-12 schools, Rier said. Those figures “are both based on estimates of what will be collected” in casino proceeds.
On Monday night, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster told the school committee Gov. Paul LePage's budget is taking casino money that was to go to public schools and giving it to private schools. That information, Webster said, came from Maine School Management Association. “There are more loose ends on the budget front than I ever recall,” Webster said.
The change Webster was talking about is the “Choice and Opportunity Fund,” not casino profits, Rier said Tuesday. “It's a renaming of something already in the law. The Choice and Opportunity Fund is the old “Center for Excellence for At-Risk Students,” which allowed $530,000 per year for students to attend the residential Good Will-Hinckley school.
The renamed account still contains $530,000, but it will allow Commissioner Stephen Bowen to give money to needy families in order to send students to other public school districts or to private or charter schools. “It has nothing to do with casino funds,” Rier said.
There is, he added, much confusion about LePage's budget proposals.
The state needs “to clarify a lot of issues. We're trying to do that.” Rier said he hopes to give schools estimates on what they can expect in state funding in mid-February, when many superintendents release their proposed budgets. The February estimates “won't be full-blown subsidy printouts,” but may provide some clarity on what's in the budget at that moment, Rier said.
Another misunderstood proposal is teacher retirement, Rier said Tuesday.
Currently, the state pays for all teacher retirement, approximately $201 million per year. In LePage's proposed two-year budget, school districts would pay $28.9 million per year of what's called “normal costs,” or money the state pays for working teachers' future retirements.
As proposed, school districts would pay $28.9 million, and the state would add $14.5 million in the GPA fund “to support that increase,” Rier said. That means schools would have to allocate $28.9 million yearly to the Maine State Retirement System, and the state would pay for half of that through the education funding formula, Rier said. School districts that are high receivers, like Lewiston, would get more, while low receivers would get less, Rier said.
In proposing the retirement change, Webster said the state is “opening the barn door. Where is it going to stop?”