LD 1082 is a school funding bill that, if passed by the Maine Legislature, could potentially impact SAD 44 more than Newry withdrawing from the district would, according to district officials. The bill is written to take effect Jan. 1 and would specifically affect SAD 44 and SAD 6.
A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Wednesday, April 15, at 1 p.m. in Augusta.
State Rep. Fran Head (R-Bethel), said Monday she will propose an amendment to remove SAD 44 from the bill.
The bill, dated March 25, is in response to a law that was passed 10 years ago. In 2005 the Legislature approved legislation that exempted SAD 44 and SAD 6 from a statewide school funding change that made a town’s student population a factor in determining its share of the local school budget.
The exemption meant Newry would continue to pay a large portion of the SAD 44 budget, because the local SAD 44 share is calculated entirely on town valuation. The vote by the Legislature happened without any formal local input from the town or its residents. It prompted resentment among some, and helped fuel the town’s current withdrawal effort.
This month, the Legislature is considering whether to remove that exemption as of Jan. 1, 2016, and calculate the local share based 50 percent on valuation and 50 percent on student population. The bill originated out of concerns in Frye Island, a SAD 6 town with a similar valuation profile as Newry.
As in 2005, the Town of Newry has not officially had the opportunity to weigh in on the issue at a local forum. Town officials said they only found out about the bill last week.
So did SAD 44 Supt. Dave Murphy, who provided an estimate what the impact on SAD 44 towns would be if the bill passes. He said it tentatively appears the financial blow could be worse than if Newry, which pays approximately $2.9 million a year to SAD 44, withdrew.
Murphy’s estimated figures (calculated by Drummond Woodsum Attorneys), based on the current year’s budget and likely different from what they would be in the future, show Bethel would have to come up with an additional $1,630,608 million. Woodstock an additional $697,612, and Greenwood $59,168. Newry’s share would drop by $2,386,667 million. The large impact is a result in part of technical calculations within the formula, according to the Drummond Woodsum information.
Under the current formula, the payments by town are, according to SAD 44: Bethel, $2,922,104; Greenwood, $1,063,033; Newry, $3,060,546; Woodstock ($1,194,058).
“We think it’s really important that people understand what this means,” Murphy said. He said it would be a concern whether the towns could raise that kind of money. For two of the towns, he said, the hike would represent more than a 50 percent increase in their school budget share.
Murphy said his understanding is the law would take effect for FY’17, the 2016-2017 school year.
He met with town managers from SAD 44 towns Monday, and said SAD 44 representatives would testify Wednesday in Augusta before the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. He also said the Maine Department of Education was expected to testify against the bill. A work session on the bill by the committee is expected to take place in about a week, according to Legislature officials.
On Monday evening, the SAD 44 School Board unanimously approved a resolution opposing the bill. Newry’s two directors, Bonnie Largess and Whitney Gray, were present and voted for it, according to Murphy.
Head, who is listed as a sponsor of the bill, was asked about her sponsorship and why there was no official notification to SAD 44 and its towns leading up to the bill’s introduction and hearing.
“I signed on to this bill only so that I would be kept updated on when the public hearing would be scheduled …” she said. “The easy thing to do would be to sit on the sidelines on this bill and to take no position—but that isn’t what I came here to do. At the beginning of the public hearing, I will formally ask the committee to entirely eliminate ‘MSAD 44’ from LD 1082 because of the financial impact which will be tremendously detrimental to our area. [Last week Head said her amendment would request that funding in the two districts be evaluated separately.]
“This is an important issue for our towns, and the hearing will provide an opportunity for residents to voice their opinion. Oftentimes, representatives will co-sponsor a bill in order to stay apprised of new developments. That is what I did, and look forward to keeping you all updated. Two months ago, I said this should remain a local issue, which is exactly what I still believe.”
Regarding notification to the towns, Head said, “When I was notified of the public hearing, I began reaching out to constituents who had approached me on this issue, as well as some town officials and SAD 44 staff. If any of my constituents want to voice support or opposition and can’t attend the hearing, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org and it will be distributed on the day of the meeting.”
Last week, before that statement, Head had said of the bill, “I’ll be watching LD 1082 very closely because it could impact our funding formula for SAD 44 should it pass. This ‘Act To Ensure Equitable Support of Education for Maine Students’ presents a possible solution to allow for the formula change to 50 percent valuation and 50 percent per pupil beginning Jan. 1, 2016.
“I’ve had a lot of constituents call me to support this measure, and others who think this should be a local decision. What I keep hearing from people is that they don’t want any dramatic changes overnight, a concern which I share.
“I have asked the members of the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs to decide on this bill after the public hearing and work session, so that the decision is made based on the parents, students and staff who will be most affected.”
In January, when the bill was being initiated, the Newry Withdrawal Committee discussed it briefly, deciding that dealing with it formally was not part of their charge. Dr. Mark Eastman, the committee’s education consultant, estimated then the bill, if approved, would mean Newry would pay $1.7 million less to SAD 44.
The committee’s legal consultant, Dan Stockford, noted at the time that the issue might be something the town could consider taking a position on. That has not happened, however, and the committee has continued to try to informally track the bill process.
During that same time period the Citizen asked Head about the impending bill for a story that was published Jan. 22. She said she would watch it carefully, “and look forward to hearing the suggestions and concerns of my constituents.”
Newry Selectman Wendy Hanscom said the board had just found out about the bill last week. “What bothers me the most is this includes almost no provision for local input from MSAD 44 or its member towns,” she said. “The state will change the law. Whoever can manage to get to Augusta and testify, can. … LD 1082 does not allow much discussion for what’s best at the local level.”
Greenwood Town Manager Kim Sparks and Bethel Town Manager Christine Landes also said they had not known about the bill until last week.
Sysko, Wight views
As for the bill itself, Jim Sysko, chairman of the Newry Withdrawal Committee and a driving force behind the withdrawal effort, said Thursday that he supports the bill, emphasizing he speaks only for himself.
“What this bill does is that it removes the exception that was placed on only Frye Island and Newry when LD 1 was enacted and changed the way schools were funded in Maine,” he said. “The exception was voted without the opportunity for Newry citizens to voice their opinions. It was akin to ‘taxation without representation’ for these two communities, which is abhorrent to most citizen/patriots.
“The recommended change defined in this bill  is consistent with a cost setting process that the law provides for all other Maine communities. Newry has been forced into a current situation whereby it pays over $111,000 per student to the local district each year while neglecting public works and local projects that are needed to maintain the town roads, infrastructure, and support services. To make matters even more extreme, Newry and Frye Island have virtually no voting power on their districts’ school boards. LD 1082 will not change this, but it will give Newry and Frye Island more equitable tax treatment under the law.”
After learning of the SAD 44 impact numbers Friday, Sysko added, “I’d like to remind everyone that back in 2005 Newry people were not given any notice at all about a bill that cost them tens of millions since then. Now those against LD 1082, which will correct the earlier injustice, are complaining that a week is not enough notice. Pure hypocrisy.”
Former Newry selectman Steve Wight – who in 2005 worked with state legislators on the exemption – said Friday of LD 1082, “As a citizen of the SAD 44 region, I think it is a bad idea. The reason for passage of the bill in the first place was that Newry and Frye Island were found to be outliers from the norm in terms of valuation vs. number of pupils. Most towns with locally high valuations are large enough to have their own school systems and support them from their own tax base. Only when several towns comprise a school district and there is a great disparity among them in terms of both valuation and number of pupils does the problem occur.”
Wight was asked about Sysko’s criticism of the town not seeking local public input in 2005, and about the bill being discussed by selectmen then. “I did discuss with the Newry selectmen the fact that SAD 44 was working on the exemption back in 2005,” he said. “No one on the board was concerned about it at the time. I don’t know whether there was a reporter at the meeting, but in any event no report of the discussion was published.”
In January the SAD 44 School Board voted to take no action on creating its own committee to consider local alternatives to the current cost-sharing formula for SAD 44 towns.
The text of the bill is below:
An Act To Ensure Equitable Support of Education for Maine Students in School Administrative District No. 6 and School Administrative District No. 44
Be it enacted by the People of the State of Maine as follows:
Sec. 1. 20-A MRSA §15688, sub-§2-A is enacted to read:
2-A. Municipalities in School Administrative District No. 6 and School Administrative District No. 44. With regard to the local cost of education for member municipalities in School Administrative District No. 6 and School Administrative District No. 44, the cost-sharing formulas established between these member municipalities in these 2 school administrative districts prior to January 1, 2005 must be set to 50% valuation and 50% per pupil beginning January 1, 2016.
Sec. 2. PL 2005, c. 2, Pt. D, §69 is repealed.
Sec. 3. P&SL 1997, c. 41, Pt. A, §8, as amended by P&SL 2001, c. 8, §1, is further amended to read:
Sec. A-8. Educational needs. If the Town of Frye Island is incorporated and separated from the Town of Standish, it remains in the School Administrative District 6 or its successor and pays its proportional share of costs, unless or until such time as it withdraws from the school administrative district in accordance with applicable state law. School transportation services must be provided as follows: The Town of Frye Island is authorized to require each resident with a child or children enrolled in School Administrative District 6 to provide transportation from the island to the mainland point of pickup at the resident’s own expense; transportation costs from the mainland point of pickup to the school must be provided, as is customarily done, by the school administrative district.
Sec. 4. P&SL 1997, c. 41, Pt. A, §9, as enacted by P&SL 2001, c. 8, §2, is repealed.
This bill eliminates the exemption for member municipalities in School Administrative District No. 6 and School Administrative District No. 44 from the standard municipal cost-sharing arrangement. For purposes of the cost-sharing calculation between these member municipalities in these 2 school administrative districts, the valuation and per-pupil figures for the member municipalities must both be set to 50%. The bill also repeals the prohibition against the withdrawal of the Town of Frye Island from School Administrative District No. 6.