School budgets, often large and dynamic can be confusing to taxpayers. This year, the Machias School Department had a $4.5 million budget. The big factor when setting a school budget is what the state subsidy will be. This year, for the Machias school system, that number came in at $1,691,339. More importantly, the amount of money needed to be raised locally to receive that subsidy, which for Machias, was $1,107,015. That's $46,273 more than last year.
The 2012/2013 budget had a carry-over of $35,000, while the 2013/2014 year has a $200,000 carry-over. The difference, Scott Porter, Superintendent of Schools for AOS 96 is largely due to an increase in tuition students coming to Machias this year.
“We received much more in tuition students than we had anticipated,” said Porter. “If ones we anticipated don't show, there's a huge financial hole. If more show up, we have a surplus and use that to offset next years budget.” the $35,000 from 2012/2013 was significantly low compared to most other years, Porter explained. Generally, over the last 10 years, the carry-over has been between $100-200,000.
Kids who live in a town that has an elementary school do not have school choice. However, they can get a Superintendent's commitment to attend a different school. The state pays for a portion of the tuition, and then, for example, if the student is attending Rose M. Gaffney in Machias, the remaining funds are raised through taxation from the town of Machias.
After several Department of Education studies, Porter says that Machias would receive far less in state subsidy, about $400,000 if they didn't get those kids coming from outlying towns. With a commitment to not upstaff, Porter will allow kids to come in if there's room in the classes. “It's a win situation for the town of Machias,” he says.
“It's a very strange set up,” Machias Town Manager Chris Loughlin said of school budgeting. “Scott's budget allows for more flexibility.” The town of Machias carries a contingency fund of about $10,000. “That doesn't give us much to come and go on,” said Porter pointing to the $200,000 carry-over balance this year.
The population of Machias stayed relatively the same this past year, however the number of students matriculating into the Machias School Department is increasing, Loughlin explained.
Richard Larson, a retired educator and school budget committee member believes in the reorganizing of schools. “Either everyone should be required to go to the school in their town, or there should be school choice for everyone. It's a bit wishy washy now,” he said.
Larson also pointed out that overall, the school budget increased, even though the Adult and Community Education budget was nixed by over $15,000. Though the focus of many of the budget meetings centered around Adult Education, the budget for the program is separate from the school budget.
The attendance is at best extremely low at budget meetings, and most town meetings as a whole. Machias, as the county seat, is a rather transient town. Acting as the service center, the population of the town is about 2,200, however the influx of daily traffic for employment and service needs is high. Perhaps taxes aren't high enough for people to be concerned.
“The apathy in Machias is so great. Emotions override the financing for the towns,” said Larson.
With school consolidation happening across the country, there has yet to be a school closure in AOS 96.
“In Washington County, we're great believers in local control. An AOS or school union is the ultimate in local control. Decisions are made by towns,” said Porter. He also explained that there are currently 37 municipalities across the state that are trying to withdraw from RSU's.
Though some area schools are raising taxation to keep there schools open, taxpayers are willing to foot the bill to keep students and schools in their community. Machiasport, for example, raised $333,295 in local dollars to cover the loss of students at Fort O'Brien School.
“It's a community decision, not a superintendent decision,” Porter said. “It's true, and I believe that the school is the hub, center, heart of the community. If it closes, you rip that heart out.”