MOUNT DESERT — The debate over the fairness of the funding formula for Mount Desert Island High School seems to be shifting from how much the four MDI towns pay in relation to each other to the relatively small amount that off-island towns pay for their students to attend MDI High.
This year, 23 percent of the school’s 535 students live off of MDI, most of them in Trenton, Hancock and Lamoine. But the off-island towns, which also include the outer islands, cover only 14 percent of the school’s budget.
The four MDI towns, with 77 percent of the high school’s students, pay 77 percent of the budget. The remaining 9 percent comes from carryover, state subsidy, sports and drama receipts and a few other small sources.
The high school funding formula, agreed to by the four MDI towns and approved by the Legislature in 1963, gives twice as much weight to each town’s total assessed property value as to the number of students the town has enrolled in the school.
Over the years, some Mount Desert taxpayers have complained that the formula is unfair because their town’s property valuation, about $2 billion now, is so much higher than that of the other MDI towns. And Mount Desert accounts for only about 18 percent of the high school’s students.
Charlie Wray, a member of the Mount Desert school committee, said at the committee’s meeting on Monday that he thinks the funding formula was fair when it was adopted and is still fair, so far as it relates to the four MDI towns. But over the past few decades, the number of off-island tuition students has greatly increased, and the high school is limited by state law to charging per-student tuition of only $11,584. This year, Mount Desert’s per-student tab is $41,800.
Wray said the funding formula “makes perfect sense” as it applies to the four MDI towns.
“But now we’ve essentially got two funding formulas,” he said. “We’ve got the original one, which appears to be working perfectly. And then we’ve got the state’s formula [for tuition-paying towns], and that’s not a fair formula.
“It’s like there are two different mathematical universes being used to figure out how to do this.”
Wray said the underlying question is how many students are ideal for the high school.
“We’ve always been told that bigger is better, [providing for] a richer program, more classes, more sports and maybe a more diverse student body,” he said. “If we truly believe that, then we’re doing the right thing. I think more curricular offerings are probably a good thing.
“But I’m not convinced we know exactly what the school size should be and whether bigger always is better.”
School committee members, all of whom also serve on the high school board, discussed the idea of exploring the possibility of applying the original funding formula to the off-island schools. Such a change likely would require action by the Legislature as well as the approval of voters in the off-island towns. And school committee member Heather Jones said that if off-island families had to pay more to send their teenagers to MDI High, they might not do so.
“If they now pay [roughly] $11,000 per pupil and it’s suddenly going to go up to $20,000, they could decide to send their kids to Ellsworth for $11,000,” she said.
School committee Chairman Caroline Pryor said she thought it was important to talk about the high school funding issue “even though it seems our options are limited.”
“I think it’s in the [high] school’s best interest to have that conversation and make sure people understand [the funding arrangement].”
The school committee agreed to ask that the issue be placed on the agenda for the high school board’s September meeting.