Tuell: East Machias School Dept. on Right Track

Porter, Rensema: East Machias School Dept. on Right Track
Several Students from M’port and Whiting Opt for E.M. over Own Schools

By Will Tuell, Downeast Coastal Press, June 9, 2009

Since withdrawing from the old SAD 77 and forming a municipal school department, East Machias has held the school budget steady, ending annual double digit increases in school tax rates under the old governance structure.

“We're holding the school budget pretty much flat,” said East Machias school board member Pete Rensema during the town's annual meeting June 2. “That's despite increases in costs, utilities, and renegotiation of teachers' support staff contracts,” said Rensema. “I'll say on behalf of [the school committee] that Scott [Porter] and his staff have done a great job of managing our budget and continuing to provide excellent education over there at Elm Street.”

Although the new state law mandates even broader consolidation than that seen under the old SAD structure, Rensema that the town's success since moving away from consolidation to independent town control is gaining attention regionally, helping to increase enrollment.

“I hope you've had a chance to get by and visit the school and see for yourself,” said Rensema. “We've got about 20 kids now from mainly Whiting and Machiasport attending Elm Street under superintendent's agreements, and more and more parents are asking to send their kids to Elm Street. Most schools would love to have this problem [rising enrollment]. We're concerned now with classroom crowding and [whether] we have enough space. My hat goes off to the teachers and staff there at Elm Street, providing an excellent education for our kids.”

Porter echoed Rensema's sentiments. “You have an excellent school, no mistake about it,” he told the East Machias residents. “Staff members are happy to be there, and you have students that are receiving a high quality education. We also have a good relationship with Washington Academy and they've been very cooperative in regard to sharing services of any type that we may need. There's a good relationship there.”

Contracting Services Prove a Plus

“East Machias has saved a substantial amount of money by being on your own,” said Porter. “The very first year [you] saved approximately $120,000 of real money by contracting with the central office in Machias for [a] superintendent and [a] special education director. That continues to happen,” he said, adding that by Union 134 contracting for similar services with his office in Machias, East Machias residents will save an additional $20,000 per year.

Porter said that East Machias has “a good problem.” While enrollments statewide are spiraling downward, East Machias is gaining students, which equates to a subsidy increase of some $100,000.

“People are struggling with declining enrollments all across the state,” said Porter. “Back in the 70s Portland had about 14,000 students. They have about 7,200 right now. It's not just happening here. It's happening statewide. The good problem you folks have is that you have students that want to come. You've gone from about 135-140 students four or five years ago to over 180. That's a good thing. As a result of that you have some tuition students from the Unorganized Territories, and you have a number of superintendents agreements that causes you to receive the subsidy for those students from the state .”

Porter said that the town's school budget is up 2.2 percent over the previous year, but that higher enrollment has resulted in a net gain of $107,000 in state subsidy.

Porter Discusses Relationship Between Property Valuation, Enrollment and State Subsidy

“[The state educational] funding formula is driven by two primary factors,” said Porter, “valuation and number of students. When valuation goes up, you get less state aid. But if you can get more students, you can neutralize or overcome that, which is the case with East Machias. The valuation of East Machias went from a little over $68 million to $76 million. That would cause you, if your student [enrollment] stayed the same, to get a little less in state subsidy. Because [it] went up, you received almost $108,000 more in state subsidy.”

Porter underscored that subsidy increases, as well as decreases in the tax commitment for education, are an anomaly given the current economic and fiscal climate.

“I don't think you're going to find too many places in Washington County where that's going to happen,” said Porter. “You probably won't find too many places in Washington County where your tax load for education is going down. We always keep saying it's going up, up, up, but [in this case] it's going down $37,825. I think that's absolutely amazing, that you're delivering a very high quality education—pre-K-12—and that tax commitment is in fact going down for the upcoming year. That's very good news for the citizens of East Machias.”

“Valuations can really grind you to the ground financially,” said Porter. “Cutler is a prime case. I think their valuation went up percentage-wise probably more than any place in the state of Maine, I would suspect. That little town of Cutler, my home town, their valuation went up from $46 million to $73 million. That much in one year is translated into a loss of $111,000 in subsidy. Some of these towns are grappling with some huge changes. It's very difficult.

“We saw Machias go up from $109 million to $121 million this year. They lost about $117,000 in state subsidy as well. You're in a very, very unusual situation, but it's a great situation to be in.”

When asked about Essential Programs and Services (EPS) funding, Porter highlighted the gaps in what many critics consider “an urban formula for a rural state.”

“I don't know of a place in Washington County that doesn't [go over EPS],” said Porter. “As a matter of fact, even the Department of Education (DOE) would tell you that 85 percent of the school districts in the state of Maine receive EPS.

“They're [DOE/Maine School Management (MSMA)] trying to change it. They've studied it. They've hired university professors to see how they can put in vocational education for example, how they can fund that, per student, but they can't figure it out, because a building trades program in Machias has a much different cost than one in Madawaska. They're trying to get some commonalities but they can't seem to get that done,” said Porter.

“I can almost guarantee that when they fold [things] into EPS, it won't help us [in rural Maine]. We actually formed the Maine Small Schools Coalition as a result of a few of us seeing this [EPS] formula coming on the horizon. We knew it was not going to be a good thing for rural Maine, and it has not been. There are a lot of schools that won't fit that formula. The tiny schools will never fit [EPS], but you could have a school the size of Elm Street fit it better than a larger school, depending on where the numbers fall,” said Porter.