The average Rockland household earns about a third of what the southern towns of Falmouth and Cumberland, Maine, earn.
But the formula the state uses to distribute money to school districts sees Rockland as more affluent and thus able to support their local schools through property tax.
However, it is unlikely that the legislature or governor will make changes to the current formula that does not place weight on the household incomes of the communities receiving state aid.
This formula is largely due to the fact that Rockland homeowners and business owners pay higher property taxes than the national average. The formula is also why the local school district is constantly struggling to offer programs that other school systems have.
The median household income in Rockland is $ 44,156, well below the state and national averages. The southern city of Falmouth, Maine, has the highest household income in Maine at $ 121,285. Nearby Cumberland has an average household income of $ 111,890.
However, the government education funding formula does not take into account a community’s income to determine how much money a school district will receive. Instead, the formula assumes that wealth is based on the value of property.
Peter Orne, business manager at Regional School Unit 13, said the formula is not fair and is detrimental to coastal communities such as those in RSU 13 (Rockland, Thomaston, Owls Head, South Thomaston and Cushing).
That’s why the Falmouth School District is receiving $ 8.6 million for the 2021-2022 school year – an average of $ 4,205 for each of its 2,049 students. SAD 51 – which includes Cumberland and North Yarmouth – receives $ 12.6 million – an average of $ 6,036 for its 2,094 students.
In contrast, Rockland-based Regional School Unit 13 receives $ 5.8 million – an average of $ 3,734 for its 1,564 students.
And while school officials in the Rockland area have raised the issue of inequality over the years, nothing is on the horizon.
First-time MP Valli Geiger, D-Rockland, said she has a bill being developed to rethink the school funding formula. The bill has not yet been drafted but should be ready to be considered later in the legislative session, which runs until June. She said it will be an uphill struggle to make change.
Veteran Senator David Miramant, D-Camden, agreed.
“I will support anything that brings justice to the system, although the many cities that are doing well do not want their formula to be changed,” said Miramant.
According to the state government website, since the state was founded in 1820, the Maine Constitution has required all cities to provide public education to their youth. In 1828, the state provided revenue to help cities pay for local education. The first state school allowance came from income from public property sales and was distributed to the municipalities according to a per student formula. In 1833 a bank tax was introduced to provide a more regular source of funding for education. In 1872, Maine established a School Mill Fund that collected a property tax from one mill from all cities and redistributed the money per student back to the cities. This marked the first time the Maine government reallocated resources in order between cities to equalize student opportunities.
In 1957, the legislature passed the Sinclair Act, named after the senator who supported the legislation. This law offered financial incentives to districts that were consolidating. This law resulted in the creation of local school districts (SAD) 5 (Rockland, Owls Head and South Thomaston), SAD 28 (Camden and Rockport), SAD 40 (Waldoboro, Washington, Union, Warren and Friendship) and SAD 50 (Thomaston, St. George and Cushing).
SADs 5 and 50 were consolidated into RSU 13 in 2009. St. George withdrew from the district in 2015.
In 1974, Maine passed the state uniform property tax. In this system, the state collected a certain amount of mills from all cities, adjusted the money to state funds, and distributed the funds to the schools. Some cities with high property tax bases ended up paying more than they got back. This proved unpopular and the flat property tax was repealed by referendum in 1977, according to the state’s website.
After the referendum, Maine rebuilt its school aid program to maintain the general structure of providing more aid to poorer cities without the state collecting or paying out local property tax funds. Instead, the state made revenue from income and sales tax funds available to provide its share.
In 2004, Maine voters passed a referendum ordering the government to pay 55 percent of local school fees. The state has not yet met this requirement.
In 2005 the legislature implemented the financing model for essential programs and services. Before this law, the level of state funding for education was determined on the basis of the school’s expenditure in the previous year. The EPS Model directs the Maine Department of Education to determine school grant spending levels based on independent research into best practices that support student success. The Education Department said this is to ensure that state aid only supports what is required for all students to meet state learning standards, rather than any budget items local school authorities may pass. Local districts reserve the right to spend local funds above the EPS level, and many do. In 2016, voters approved a 3 percent surcharge on income tax for Maine households over $ 200,000. The lawmaker and governor lifted the tax but increased school funding by $ 162 million.
The state currently distributes approximately $ 1.2 billion in state aid to public schools. And that money is distributed on the premise that wealth is determined by property values.
Orne believes that it is not fair to base the distribution of aid on property values, with higher-value cities receiving less aid. He has suggested that income is a factor in the state’s distribution of money. This could be achieved, Orne said, by taking into account the percentage of students who qualify for free or discounted lunches.
The Census Bureau also publishes annual reports on the median income of households.
Rockland’s median household income of $ 44,156 is well below the national average of $ 57,918.
But Rockland and the other RSU 13 communities have high property values that continue to rise as people outside of Maine pay higher prices to buy homes in the Midcoast.
Orne believes that wealth should not be based on property values because a people can own a house for a long time and the value increases while their income may not.
“People who have owned houses for 30 years don’t want to be paid off, they want to live in the house all their lives,” Orne said.
The lack of state aid means that municipalities are more reliant on property taxes levied by municipalities.
In Rockland, of the $ 19.1 million billed to owners over the 2020-2021 period, $ 10.6 million, or 56%, goes to the school district.
The average home home in Rockland is valued at $ 187,100, with that owner paying $ 3,615 in annual property taxes. Of this, $ 2,024 will go to the school district.
Orne said a fairer government education funding formula would likely bring Rockland $ 2-3 million more in government aid annually. If Rockland’s share of state education grants increased by $ 2 million, it would lower property tax by 10 percent or more.
An email was sent to the governor’s office on Thursday afternoon asking for comment on the state funding formula issue. As of Saturday morning there was no answer.