2016-12-22 / News

OOB works with Maine Municipal on school funding

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

OLD ORCHARD BEACH – Town Manager Larry Mead is working with Maine Municipal Association to defend Old Orchard Beach’s interests – along with those of similar communities in Maine – in state funding for area schools. Mead reported at the Dec. 6 council meeting that Maine Municipal’s legislative policy committee met in November to discuss its legislative agenda for the coming year. Part of that agenda will be defending municipalities’ interest in receiving school funding from the state.

“My focus at that meeting was to try to, as part of the legislative agenda from (Maine Municipal), to make changes to the way local education funding is done from the state so that towns like Old Orchard Beach that are designated as minimum receivers, are able to get a little bit better deal from the state,” Mead said at the meeting. “The voters approved in November a referendum (Question 2) which will result in increased funding from the state to local school districts statewide. But unless there’s action taken by the Legislature when they implement that to change the current rules, none of that additional funding, which will be many, many tens of millions of dollars, will come to Old Orchard Beach.”

The goal is meant to be in line with a 2004 law, also pushed by Maine Municipal, that directs the Legislature to pay at least 55 percent of the statewide total cost of K-12 education.

“Our interest in advancing (the 2004 initiative) was to provide property tax relief,” wrote Geoff Herman, Maine Municipal’s director of state and federal relations, in an email to the Courier, “by getting the state, with its broad based tax resources, to pay a greater share of K-12 education, and also to essentially compel the legislature to engage in comprehensive tax reform.

“Municipal officials have long been concerned with the structure of Maine’s tax code, which relies (in our view) far too heavily on the property tax to generate resources for governmental services. Of the total amount of revenue generated by the state’s three major taxes (property, income and sales), the property tax currently generates 45 percent, the income tax 31 percent and the sales tax 23 percent.”

“Because it was (Maine Municipal’s) initiative 10 years ago that the state should pay 55 percent of the cost of local education,” Mead told the Courier, “(it) has a strong interest in wanting that to be fulfilled, and is putting together strategies for making that happen.”

Specifically, Mead says three items were discussed at the Policy Committee’s Nov. 17 meeting that would benefit communities like Old Orchard Beach. Old Orchard Beach currently gets about 7 percent of its costs paid by the state.

The first item Mead described would increase funding for special education.

“All of our funds that we get from the state essentially are towards support for special education costs,” Mead said. “That’s really all that minimum receivers get. The current law, 10 years ago when the (Maine Municipal) initiative passed, the way that had been written was that minimum receivers would get 100 percent of their special costs paid for by the state. That got chopped down significantly, and it’s currently at 30 percent.”

According to Mead, special education funding for minimum receivers will increase by law to 50 percent by school year 2020-2021. One change Maine Municipal will be looking for would accelerate that increase to 50 percent by next year.

“That would help out Old Orchard Beach,” Mead said.

A related goal of the organization, according to Herman, is to increase state funding’s responsiveness to schools’ special education needs.

“A school can be suddenly hit with big increases in special education costs,” Herman wrote, “but the model only provides subsidy with respect to the school’s special education costs of two years ago.”

The second item Mead described would bring state law more into concert with federal funding laws.

“Currently, when the state is looking at funding school districts, they take off of the top any Title I federal funds that the district receives,” Mead said.

Title I is part of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Its purpose is to support economically disadvantaged students.

“Title I, federally, is supposed to supplement, not supplant, local funds,” Mead said.

The second change Maine Municipal seeks to make to state law, then, would be to change the funding determination such that federal funding for economically disadvantaged students would be in addition to state funding rather than replacing it.

A third change is not yet part of Maine Municipal’s agenda, Mead said, but it was discussed.

“The third thing, which would be very useful for communities like Old Orchard Beach, is for the state to provide support to communities for economically disadvantaged students,” Mead said.

Specifically, the change Mead is working on would alter the funding formula so that communities with a percentage of economically disadvantaged students above a certain threshold would receive more funding per such student.

“Old Orchard Beach has, currently, 57 percent of its students classified as economically disadvantaged.”

The predominant factor for state aid is property valuation, Mead said. Old Orchard Beach is unique because it has high property values, especially closer to the water, but also a substantial poor community.

“(That poverty statistic) really often, in many states, results in additional state funds for those school districts,” Mead said at the Dec. 6 council meeting. “Maine’s formula does not put much emphasis on that at all, and so that’s one area where, if we can get them to give a slight increase in the percentage of funding for communities that are above 40 or 50 percent, then that would really help us out.”

“The fact that we only get 7 percent does seem particularly unfair,” Mead told the Courier.

According to Herman, the policy committee has “constructed the legislation in broad strokes,” and after further drafting it will be submitted to the state Revisor’s Office at the end of the month.

“The next steps really are to bring to the (legislative) committee information and testimony,” Mead said.“I’ll be certainly trying to get our local elected representatives to put their support behind changes that are gonna be beneficial to communities like Old Orchard Beach.”

“With the passage of the school funding referendum, the legislature has a mandate to ensure the state picks up more of the financial burden for educating the next generation,” wrote Senator Justin Chenette (D-District 31) in an email. “This will ultimately help communities like Old Orchard Beach and Saco who deserve a better deal from the state.”

Chenette added that he will separately be putting forward three other bills, which he said have the aim of shifting the burden from local property taxpayers to tourists.

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

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