2012-02-09 / Front Page

School aid cut bandage explored

BY DARREN FISHELL Times Record Staff

BRUNSWICK — State education officials say the funding formula that calls for the Brunswick School Department to experience another year of steep cuts in state aid doesn’t lie.

Nevertheless, local legislators hope that something can be done to curb an expected decrease of $1.24 million in state aid to the district for the 2012-13 academic year.

Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski said he is not so hopeful that help or changes to the formula will emerge from legislative discussions that will ultimately determine how state education subsidy funding will be allocated for the budget year that begins July 1.

“There’s been no indication over the last three years that (the state) would be willing to do anything to change the situation, so why would they change it now?” Perzanoski said in his office last week. He referred to the impact that Brunswick Naval Air Station’s closure, a six- year process that culminated in May 2011, has had on Brunswick’s student population.

In Perzanoski’s four years as superintendent, annual cuts in state and federal aid compelled the closure of three elementary schools and the loss of 90 employees, he said.

The formula determining those cuts is based on two primary factors: enrollment and the town’s overall property valuation.

David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said that the enrollment figures are calculated in two parts, with enrollment driving most of a district’s estimated subsidy.

Other factors, such as special education costs and the district’s student- teacher ratio, are factored in to find out how much a district should expect to spend to provide an education in line with Maine Learning Results standards.

The town’s valuation, Connerty Marin said, is then used to determine how much of those costs the municipality should be able to pay.

“The Legislature could change that formula,” Connerty Marin said, “but they have refrained from doing so and there’s no legislation now for that — so, it’s not likely to happen this session.”

Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, DBrunswick, said changes to the formula are unlikely to gain a spot on the legislative calendar this session, but he said he’s confident that the numbers Brunswick is seeing now will be different when the Legislature takes action on final school subsidy figures before adjourning in April.

“I think the numbers are going to improve and not get worse,” Gerzofsky said.

Statewide, Connerty-Marin said, the education budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage reflects an increase of $ 19 million over 2011-12.

“The fact that we’ve been able to not only flat-fund but increase by $ 19 million is good news overall, but it’s not good news for a few districts,” Connerty-Marin said.

While the formula hits Brunswick the hardest in the state this year, Connerty- Marin said that the formula does provide some cushion for Brunswick — and other communities seeing a decline in student population — by comparing three-year averages of student population rather than from one year to the next.

“That three-year average is protecting Brunswick from what they would have seen if funding were based only on enrollment,” Connerty-Marin said.

Using that average means that Brunswick’s cost calculation includes 130 students more than the actual student population for this year, Connerty Marin said.

In the case of Brunswick, the difference in the average enrollments calculated back three years from 2011 and three years back from 2010 still indicates a decline of roughly 200 students, according to annual state enrollment data.

Those enrollment numbers show a sharp decline in students from 2008 to 2009 — from 3,011 students to 2,678.

Separately, Perzanoski said, the loss of the base population has resulted in a cut of around $1 million in federal impact aid that the district received for educating children from Navy families.

Other pieces of the puzzle make the budget gap climb even further, to an expected $3 million, Perzanoski said, “ and that’s before salary increases and benefits.”

Another budget constraint derives from the sharp decrease in the number of Durham students for whom Brunswick receives tuition. In 2007, Brunswick educated 174 Durham students; this year, only 40 Durham residents attend Brunswick schools.

Because that town joined Freeport and Durham to form Regional School Unit 5 to comply with the 2008 state school district consolidation law, most of Durham’s high school students now attend Freeport High School.

The expiration of the federal jobs act means a loss of another $ 693,000 in federal funds for 2012-13, Perzanoski said.

Perzanoski said the cuts would likely hit core subjects — English, social studies, math, science — and staff.

“There’s no way around it,” Perzanoski said. “ There’s nothing that will be untouched.”

This morning, the school department’s budget and finance committee are scheduled to meet to discuss, in part, the recent state subsidy estimate.

Taken by surprise

Perzanoski said he was surprised by the new projections released last week because they swung a previously expected state allocation from the black to the red — from an anticipated increase of around $224,000 to a projected decrease of $1.24 million.

“It would have been nice to have a heads-up,” Perzanoski said.

State Rep. Charlie Priest, a Democrat who represents part of Brunswick, said Wednesday that the change took him by surprise as well.

“That’s a heck of a change,” Priest said. “And it may be justified, but that’s what we want to find out.”

Priest said he is waiting to see forms showing the numbers that were crunched to bring Brunswick to the cuts seen this year.

Gerzofsky and Rep. Alex Cornell du Houx, two other Democratic lawmakers who represent Brunswick, said this week that they intend to seek special relief for Brunswick, citing the unique circumstance of the base closure.

“Right now, I’m looking for help — not a magic $1.2 million, but just some help,” Gerzofsky said. “We’re looking for some one-time relief to get us through this year.”

Priest agreed with Gerzofsky that legislative changes are unlikely to happen this year, but Cornell du Houx said Wednesday that he plans to propose legislation that would change the three-year student population averaging method for districts with special circumstances.

“It makes sense for normal school population change,” Cornell du Houx said, “but it doesn’t make sense for a base closure.”

Shortly after a federal Base Realignment and Closure commission voted in August 2005 to close BNAS, lawmakers and representatives of then- Gov. John Baldacci’s administration discussed changing the funding formula in anticipation of Brunswick’s drop in student population, “but it never happened,” Perzanoski said.

“There was a lot of talking but very little to no action,” Perzanoski said Friday, the day after the state released its latest subsidy estimates. “ Rhetoric doesn’t pay the bills for kids’ education and that’s what I’ve heard is a lot of rhetoric and no action.”

Since Friday, Perzanoski said, he has spoken with each member of Brunswick’s delegation, Town Manager Gary Brown and community members about the budget projections.

“People are concerned and we need to try and find a way to bridge this gap,” Perzanoski said Tuesday.

dfishell@timesrecord.com

Return to top