LEWISTON — Sen. Margaret Craven, D-Lewiston, on Friday blasted a last-minute change by the Legislature to Maine's education funding formula that will shift more money to rural schools.
“I'm very upset,” Craven said. "Lewiston is losing about $27,000 and Lewiston has gained the most students,” she said. Rural schools “are getting more money, and they're losing student population. They are the big winners in this case.”
She criticized the sponsor of L.D. 1274, Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, whose rural district will benefit. Raye's school district, the Perry School Department, has 145 students enrolled. That district will get $26,610 more next year.
Raye released a statement after the change passed, calling it “a victory for rural education, and a significant step toward restoring a measure of fairness after six devastating years of a biased and unfair funding formula.” In his Washington County, children, teachers and property taxpayers suffered because of a "round peg of rural Maine being pounded in the square hole of an urban funding formula," Raye said.
Maine Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Jim Rier, who was involved in writing the new formula, said Friday more money is going to rural districts, but the change is small.
Next year $6 million will be shifted to rural districts, Rier said, which is less than 1 percent of the $914 million the state will spend on K-12 education.
The school formula change was passed in the House and Senate last week, and is scheduled to be signed into law Monday by Gov. Paul LePage in Eastport.
Numbers released by Rier Friday show that the change means next year Auburn schools will get about $35,600 less; Portland schools, nearly $1 million less; and Lisbon schools about $8,000 less.
Rural schools gaining include Farmington, which will get about $26,000 more, and Machias, about $74,000.
It's important to acknowledge that next year every school district is getting more money, Rier said, because the state budget will add $19 million to school spending.
“Everyone comes out a winner,” Rier said.
Larger districts will get more of that $19 million than smaller districts. “When more money flows it goes to bigger units compared to other units” because those districts have more students, he said.
Rier demonstrated with numbers.
Next year Lewiston will get $27,300 less because $6 million is being shifted. But, Lewiston is getting $400,621 more because of the extra $19 million. Without the change, Lewiston would have received $427,941 more.
The same for Auburn.
Next year Auburn will get $35,600 less because the $6 million is being shifted. But Auburn is getting $319,754 more because of the extra $19 million statewide, Rier's numbers showed. Without the formula change Auburn would have received $355,419 more.
Rier said the $6 million shift in the formula comes from:
* Giving more money for support staff, such as guidance counselors and librarians, for districts with less than 1,200 students.
* Allowing for the same costs in staff benefits, including health care, regardless of whether the district is in Presque Isle or Cape Elizabeth. Health care costs should be about the same across Maine, Rier said.
* Giving more money to a few districts that get little money from the state because they are property-value rich, but poor in income. Lubec is one example. “There aren't a lot of them,” Rier said.