Boost in state school funds will benefit taxpayers most

ELLSWORTH — The state budget approved by lawmakers last month means more money for Maine schools, though taxpayers and not students will be the primary beneficiaries of the funding boost in local communities.

The budget that received final approval in Augusta in early July had $162 million more in it for education over the next two years than the initial state biennial budget proposal did. While it means more funding for many school systems and departments around the state, not everyone will see more.

In Hancock County, about half of the school administrative units (from standalone municipal departments such as Ellsworth to multi-town systems such as Regional School Unit 24) will see more state aid. Those that will not see an increase are generally waterfront towns that are so-called “minimum receivers” under the state’s education funding formula.

At budget meetings earlier this year, governing bodies were given the option of what to do with increased education funding if it materialized as expected. They could choose from putting it toward property tax relief, setting it aside in a dedicated reserve fund, increasing funding for school programming, or any combination of the three.

Under the budget that was passed in July, school systems that did not vote on that warrant article are required to put at least half of the new funding toward property tax relief.

Bucksport-based RSU 25 saw the biggest funding increase locally, a gain of $395,970. Voters there authorized all three options in June “because we didn’t really know what was coming” for additional funding, said Superintendent Jim Boothby.

RSU 25 will put half (just under $198,000) toward tax relief and the other half into the district’s capital reserve account, where the balance stood just below $100,000 prior to the new funding being announced. Boothby said he has already talked with town officials (in addition to Bucksport, RSU 25 is made up of Orland, Prospect and Verona Island) to let them know their respective school bills will be lowered a bit.

Though Boothby said the timing of the additional funding was “frustrating,” given that the RSU had already completed its budgeting process, he said he is “very appreciative” of the additional money.

The Ellsworth School Department saw the second biggest boost in school funding in Hancock County, going up $333,287. At a special meeting Monday night, city councilors approved putting the bulk of it (just shy of $295,000) toward property tax relief.

That took into account the 50 percent guidance from Augusta, as well as a recognition that the state budget approved in July lowered the city’s reimbursement for the homestead property tax exemption program by $90,000. Councilors then put a little more toward tax relief to push the tax rate down under $18 per $1,000 in property valuation to a final rate of $17.97.

Previously, the tax rate was projected to come in at $18.15 per $1,000. The tax rate in Ellsworth for the previous fiscal year that ended June 30 was $17.68 per $1,000.

The remaining $38,322 was left for the School Department to use. Superintendent Dan Higgins said most (about $35,000) of that will go to the Hancock County Technical Center for renovations to accommodate the expanded biomedical program.

Higgins said he appreciates the council’s actions and its continued support of the city’s schools.

RSU 24 will see $243,558 more in education funding in the 2017-2018 school year. Business Manager David Bridgham said 57 percent of that will be used to reduce taxes, while the remaining $100,000 or so will be set aside in the general fund. Bridgham said the hope is that voters next June will agree to create a capital reserve fund, something the RSU has never had, and seed it with that $100,000.

If that fund is not created, the money could still be carried forward and used to reduce property taxes in RSU 24 in the 2018-2019 school year.

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller has worked at The Ellsworth American since 2012. He covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland. [email protected]