YORK, Maine — An effort to “raise the floor” on state education funding could add more than a million dollars annually in state subsidies to a handful of “minimum receiver” towns in coastal York County.
Fayette Town Manager Mark Robinson is a driving force behind the Raise the Floor coalition, a statewide group of towns and school districts that receive the minimum reimbursement allowable from the state Department of Education – no more than 10 percent of their expenditures for what is called “Essential Programs and Services" (EPS).
York, Kittery and the Wells-Ogunquit Community School District are among towns that qualify as “minimum receivers” due to high property valuation.
The Raise the Floor Coalition is expected to file legislation next January to raise the rate that minimal receivers get from the state to a flat 15 percent, which would cost the state roughly $15 million annually. For York, that 5 percent of additional funding amounts to $1.2 million, he said. In Wells, it would mean an additional $1.1 million and in Kittery slightly less than $800,000 a year.
The coalition is asking the minimum receiver municipalities to contribute $5 per student to fund $50,000 needed to begin a lobbying campaign for the bill. Robinson said Thursday it has raised more than half the money needed. Money raised thus far will allow the coalition to hire the law firm Preti Flaherty to write the bill and the remaining funds will be used to lobby for it.
Wells was one of the first towns to sign onto the campaign last spring. Town Manager Jonathan Carter said the town and school district agreed to split the $6,500 bill.
“If we have the opportunity to get this in front of the Legislature, with a more favorable climate in Augusta, I think we have a good shot at it,” Carter said.
Robinson addressed the York Board of Selectmen last week, asking it for $8,900 toward the effort. Selectmen unanimously passed a motion to spend up to $8,900, with the hope the York School Committee will agree to foot part of the bill. If not, the town will cover the entire cost.
Robinson said the current state of education funding for many towns in Maine is untenable. In Fayette, he said, residents are seeing a $1.55 increase in the mil rate due to decreases in reimbursement from the state. Last year, the mil rate increased $1, bringing the two year increase to more than $2.50 with no end in sight.
“The reality is that we are on an unsustainable path in some of these school districts,” Robinson said. “This will provide a standard amount that will be provided that these municipalities can count on to cushion the rising costs.”
York and Kittery currently receive 10 percent from the state, and Wells-Ogunquit district receives 9 percent.
Robinson said he has provided information on the Raise the Floor coalition to Kittery Town Manager Kendra Amaral and school district officials, and is hoping to schedule a meeting there in the next few weeks.
Robinson said they are seeking in essence a new line item in the education budget, because they did not want to detract from the funds that less wealthy school districts are receiving. In all, 116 communities are minimal receiver towns, he said.
Robinson said so far York, Wells, Ogunquit and Cape Elizabeth are among the towns that have contributed – all so-called “gold coast” towns from southern Maine.
“In talking with legislators, they said 'Why do we want to give more money to these rich towns on the gold coast? My immediate reaction is that all kids matter and some are being treated inequitably. The gold coast also contributes a significant amount of sales and income tax, and what are they getting for that?”
He said he is approaching wealthier towns, which in turn will help small minimal receiver towns that can’t afford to participate.
Even smaller towns in Maine are showing interest in the efforts as they struggle to maintain quality education for their students in a climate of continually rising costs. On Thursday, Robinson was on his way to Lamoine, a Downeast coastal town of less than 2,000 residents near Bar Harbor. Even with just 169 students, Lamoine, which receives just 5 percent in state funding, would see a substantial increase in funding if the legislation is successful. An increase to 15 percent would add more than $222,000 annually to town coffers.
In RSU 21, the towns of Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel are right on the line, with the last six years of EPS funding averaging right at 15 percent, according to Director of Operations Stephen Marquis. While districts that fall at or above 15 percent would not see an increase in state subsidies, they would still benefit because the floor would be set at a minimum of 15 percent.
The rate fluctuates each year, and this would help towns that might be at 16 percent this year, but have been at 13 percent in the past, for example, budget from year to year, Robinson said.
He said it’s a relatively simple concept, they’re competing for general fund dollars.
“We’ve lost a significant amount of funding, and we’ve done everything that we can to cushion the blow in these municipalities," he said."This is to help sustain the education operations so that as the costs increase this will help sustain a school’s ability to provide the best possible education for their students, and it will also provide some equity for all school districts.”