Area schools lose state money as COVID-19 cuts enrollment


Less state aid has flowed to many school districts this year because of drops in enrollment caused by an increase in home-schooling.

Most local officials say COVID relief funds, large carryovers and planning have helped them avoid major cuts or big tax increases.

A midyear spending freeze gave School Administrative District 17 in Paris a $2 million carryover, Superintendent Rick Colpitts said in a recent interview.

District enrollment dropped by 128 this past year, resulting in a state aid reduction of about $300,000, from $19.5 million last year to $19.2 million, he said.

“But it is not a big problem because the school board and administrators anticipated (the reduction),” Colpitts said, “so we can move forward because of planning.”

He said more home-schooling by parents who feared their children would be exposed to COVID-19 was the main reason for the enrollment drop.

The number of home-schooled children doubled, he said, from 150 to 300. The sprawling district based in Paris serves 3,300 to 3,400 students.

The state funding formula is based on property values and student populations. The higher the values, the less money. Fewer students, also less money.

Other factors are the percentage of disadvantaged children in a district and changes in spending on transportation and special education students, Maine Department of Education spokeswoman Kelli Deveaux said.

The funding model is “student-centered,” she said.

She said the state’s school finance team ran funding scenarios to find solutions to the one-year “unusual” enrollment decline. The plan that was chosen is the most fair to both those that lost students and those that gained, Deveaux said.

“The formula is always variable, and schools know and adjust for this,” she said.

She said the state has no authority to issue a waiver for districts facing big losses in aid because of an enrollment decrease. COVID relief funds have specific requirements for use and cannot be used to offset a state funding loss, she said.

A proposal from Gov. Janet Mills would raise the percentage of the state’s share of school spending to 55%, as mandated by state law.

If approved by the state Legislature, this formula change could help some districts, including Regoinal School Unit 16, which includes Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls.

The district is on track to lose $1 million in state aid over the next two budget cycles.

RSU 16 did not offer remote-only instruction during the pandemic, which resulted in an enrollment loss of 74 students and a state funding loss of $500,000 this year. Aid is based on a two-year average, which means the district could get the same amount next year.

The Poland Board of Selectpersons has asked Mills to review the subsidy formula to account for the low student numbers or to increase the district’s aid.

As of Wednesday, the state had not responded to the request, RSU 16 Superintendent Kenneth Healey said.

According to a DOE document, the district would see a shift of $1.1 million from the local allocation to the state’s share.

If enacted, the shift would mean no local tax increase for the residents of Poland and Minot, Healey said. Mechanic Falls would see an increase of about $36 per $100,000 of property value, he said.

OTHER DISTRICTS LOSE, GAIN STATE AID

In RSU 9 based in Farmington, enrollment dropped by 109 from last year’s total of 2,406 students in the 10-town district, interim Superintendent Monique Poulin said.

State funding decreased by $319,000, she said.

Funding is based on two-year averages, so she expects the drop also to affect next year’s allocation.

“However, that will depend on the potential for students to re-enroll once we have a fall return-to-school plan for them to consider,” Poulin said. Potential adjustments to the funding formula also could affect state aid, she said.

She said the district’s fund balance — unspent money that is carried from year to year — was more than $2 million.

“We are able to offset some of the budget increases without a significant tax increase,” she said. Also, some expenses were taken out of the general fund and covered by federal relief funds.

She expects enrollment to come back up in the fall because the Maine Department of Education and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have relaxed some guidelines, such as the social-distancing parameters.

“We will look forward to having students back on campus in September,” she said.

Student enrollment in SAD 52, which comprises the towns of Turner, Greene and Leeds, dropped by 90, from about 2,000, Superintendent Kimberly Brandt said.

She said the district’s state funding decreased by $429,000 from last year, which created a more focused budget.

“The administrative team worked collaboratively and diligently to find ways to identify the most essential things in the budget,” Brandt said.

Last year’s spending plan did not raise local taxes. The proposed 2021-22 budget includes a 3.64% increase, she said.

She believes many students who were home-schooled or sent to private schools this year will come back in the fall.

“Our goal is to have students in school five days each week next year,” she said. “As a result, I believe our enrollment will increase in the fall.”

She said she was “very happy” that the district is using pandemic-related savings to offset the proposed budget’s tax impact on property owners.

“The proposed (fiscal year 2022) budget will meet our students’ most critical needs next year,” she said.

Other districts say the decline in enrollment has had little effect on budgets.

The Lisbon School Department and RSU 10 based in the areas of Rumford and Buckfield both got more state funding, $59,000 and almost $1 million, respectively, and saw little impact on programs or taxes.

Lewiston and Auburn also received more state funding for the 2021-22 school year, $1.3 million and $1.2 million, respectively.

Officials in those cities said they were not hurt by drops in enrollment and expect the numbers to come back up in the fall.


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