School funding debate reignites



MOUNT DESERT — Coming under scrutiny once again, as it does every so often, is the formula used to calculate how much each of the Mount Desert Island towns pays for the yearly operation and upkeep of MDI High School.

This year, Mount Desert taxpayers are spending just over $2.88 million on the high school, or $41,800 for each of the town’s 69 high school students.

That is more than twice the per-student cost of any of the other three towns on the island.

Bar Harbor, with 206 of the high school’s 535 students, pays $14,554 per student. Tremont, with 68 students, pays $15,128. Southwest Harbor pays $17,300 for each of its 64 high school students.

The discrepancy is due to the funding formula incorporated in the 1963 “special and private act” of the Legislature that created the regional high school. According to that formula, 33 percent of the school’s budget “is assessed among the participating towns in the same percentage of resident pupils of each town enrolled in grades 9 to 12 … .”

Sixty-seven percent of the assessment is based on “the average of the state [property] valuation for [each] town for the three most recent years preceding the year to which the budget applies.”

In plain English, that means property values carry twice as much weight as student enrollment.

When officials of the four towns were devising the funding formula, those from Southwest Harbor insisted on the one that was ultimately adopted. Mount Desert went along with it because apparently no one anticipated that the total value of property in Mount Desert would increase to the extent that it has, especially in relation to the other island towns. For 2017, the state values Mount Desert at just over $2 billion.

Mount Desert resident George Peckham, a longtime critic of the funding formula, last month presented the per-student cost for each MDI town to the Board of Selectmen and asked them to look into the fairness of it. Caroline Pryor, chairman of the Mount Desert School Committee, was at that meeting.

She later described the discrepancy in the amount Mount Desert pays per student compared to the other towns as “eye opening” and “concerning.”

She told her fellow school committee members at their April 5 meeting that she thinks the committee should look into it.

“I don’t know where our discussion might take us, but those are pretty staggering figures,” she said.

Changing the funding formula would require action by the legislature, and all four MDI towns would have to agree.

“Unless I’m missing something, I don’t know what the incentive is for (the other three towns) to be open to changing the funding formula,” Pryor acknowledged.

Even with a much higher per-student cost, Mount Desert still has the lowest property tax rate on the island.

School Superintendent Marc Gousse told the Mount Desert School Committee he would compile data for their May meeting on how each town’s assessment for the high school has changed over the past decade.

Pryor said that once the school committee has had a chance to review that information and thoroughly discuss the issue, they probably will want to take it up with the high school board and the Mount Desert selectmen.

School committee member Charlie Wray, who also is chairman of the school system board, said the system’s current long-range planning effort could very well put the funding formula question front and center. Among the options to be addressed in the planning process are the possible consolidation of schools and creation of a single middle school.

“Under what formula would it be funded?” Wray asked. “The funding formula is going to come back [up] if that ever happens.”

Tuition rate ‘weird’

Wray said another “weird” thing about the way MDI High School is funded is the tuition that non-MDI towns including Trenton, Hancock, Lamoine and the other islands pay for their students to attend the high school.

Each of those towns currently pays $11,584 per student per year, which is the maximum allowed by state law.

“So, the four MDI towns, with Mount Desert being in the majority in terms of money, are subsidizing the tuition kids,” Wray said.

Tuition students currently account for 23 percent of the high school’s enrollment.

Long time simmering

The last time the high school funding formula came under fire was more than eight years ago, when the Mount Desert selectmen pushed for a change. Although they would like to have had a formula based totally on student enrollment, they said they were willing to compromise.

“Let’s make a deal,” Selectman Patrick Smallidge said at the time.

The Acadia-area League of Towns hosted a public forum on the issue at the high school in December 2008.

“The argument for per-student cost seems to say that anyone who doesn’t have kids shouldn’t have to pay for schools,” said Dick Atlee of Southwest Harbor. “It’s a violation of the thought that the community is responsible for it.”

But Smallidge called the funding formula “outdated and inaccurate” and said it had resulted in Mount Desert picking up “an ever-increasing and unequal tab for the cost of education.”

Rob Liebow, who was superintendent of schools at the time, and Mount Desert Tax Assessor John Brushwein analyzed the equity of the funding formula from the standpoint of taxpayers’ ability to pay. They concluded that Mount Desert residents were not being unfairly taxed.

“If one looks at this from the perspective of a like-valued property owner, then the formula is about as fair as it gets,” Liebow said.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. dbroom@mdislander.com

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