Local schools stand to get more state money for education

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LEWISTON — Schools in the Twin Cities will get more money from the state this year, as will most schools in the tri-county area.

The Lewiston School Department stands to receive $1.23 million more, for a total of $36.5 million in General Purpose Aid to Education, according to preliminary figures from Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. The numbers won’t be final until they are approved by the Legislature. 

Preliminary figures show Auburn is slated to get $935,000 more for its 2012-13 fiscal budget beginning July 1. The city would receive a total of $18.86 million in state aid.

Statewide, Maine would spend $914.7 million — $19 million more than last year — on prekindergarten-through-grade-12 schools.

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Lewiston receives the highest amount of state funding, the level of which is determined by the number of students and the community’s ability to pay, based on property values.

Portland has the state’s largest school district, but the city has higher property values. It is scheduled to receive $14 million for 2012-13.

While many districts have declining or flat enrollment, Lewiston’s is growing by about 100 students per year. Property values were down 6 percent from the year before. The state average was down 2 percent.

Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said the projected state money “puts us in better shape than some other communities, but we’re still going to have tough decisions balancing the needs of students and the capacity of our community” to pay.

The extra $1.23 million will help offset $1 million in lost money because the federal jobs bill money has stopped, and because changes in MaineCare regulations on how schools are reimbursed for special education services.

“So, the $1.2 million allows us to maintain where we are, but doesn’t cover the additional costs of increasing enrollment, and to meet our mission of ensuring the academic success of all students,” Webster said.

To reduce the number of high school dropouts, Lewiston needs more alternative programs and in-school suspension programs. “We should have universal pre-K. We don’t,” Webster said.

Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said she was pleased to be getting more money. “However, it’s a false positive,” she said.

The school district is losing $632,130 in federal jobs money and last year took $853,000 out of its fund balance for the budget.

Weighing the additional state money against replacing the fund balance and jobs money, there is a gap of about $549,000 Grondin said. That’s without considering rising costs of insurance, salaries and oil, she said.

Auburn continues to fund schools below the level recommended by the state’s Essential Programs and Services formula. “We’re $2.9 million below EPS, which is significant,” Grondin said.

In Wales, Regional School Unit 4 Superintendent Jim Hodgkin said he was hopeful but cautious.

Sabattus-Wales-Litchfield schools, which have a current budget of $17.4 million, stand to receive $225,000 more than last year. “It is what we were hoping,” Hodgkin said, adding that it was too early to know whether the number would mean he’d add, cut or maintain programs.

Poland Superintendent Dennis Duquette was delighted with the projected numbers, saying it was more than expected.

“We gained $681,473,” he said. “It’s a blessing.”

His district is expecting a $1.5 million deficit from the loss of federal money, from money taken from the fund balance and from rising operating costs. “So when you get $681,000 more, it’s gigantic. It means we probably are not going to cut any programs or teachers,” Duquette said.

The district will consider changes in health insurance benefits and contract negotiations. “You can only give what you have to give,” he said.

Poland-Minot-Mechanic Falls schools have already made a lot of cuts, Duquette said. Last year, the three towns created one middle school and fewer teachers are giving students more academic opportunities, Duquette said. “It’s been a huge success.”

bwashuk@sunjournal.com

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