by Chris Chase
Coastal Journal staff
BATH — Regional School District 1 (RSU 1) has seen a bit of controversy in recent months over the funding formulas the district uses and how costs are distributed between the five municipalities that make it up: Arrowsic, Woolwich, Bath, West Bath, and Phippsburg.
The most recent development has been a lawsuit filed by West Bath against RSU 1 to the tune of $1.9 million, on the grounds that they believe the previous funding model charged the city more than necessary. But the path that the municipalities have taken to reach the controversy today is a bit older.
The first signs of unrest started back in May. The town of Woolwich had seen their costs skyrocket due to the valuation of the town, and so Woolwich brought the issue to the other towns in the district. This led the other municipalities to agree to form a committee to look at how the costs are distributed throughout the district.
“The City of Bath had asked that the committee be formed to look at how the costs, the total school system costs, are allocated across the five member communities,” said Bath City Councilor David Sinclair at a meeting on Nov. 7. Sinclair represents Ward 6, and presided over that council meeting as chairman.
The committee itself was supposed to seek out an equitable model of funding that would fairly distribute the costs of RSU 1 to the five municipalities within it. The previous model determined costs using a formula based one third on student population, one third on town valuation, and one third on town population. Woolwich felt they unfairly ended up paying much more than they should have, especially after they saw a large spike in their costs.
The committee, which met with representatives from each of the municipalities, sought to find a funding solution that would allow for a fair level of funding from each town that was distributed in a way that was considered equitable by everyone. The committee used two main factors in their decision making: Student population and a community’s ability to pay.
A community’s ability to pay was based on the state’s method for establishing funding, which separates school funding into two categories: Essential programs and services (EPS) that must be maintained to be considered a school body, and “everything else,” which includes things such as adult education. Typically, this equation breaks down to 88 percent being EPS, and 12 percent being the “everything else.”
Dozens of different funding models were mulled over, and eventually the committee came up with four different plans for the future of RSU 1 Funding.
The first plan, which is more of a lack of a plan, was to do nothing and continue the current model of funding. A second plan was to look at the figures derived from the initial analysis of EPS costs and determine how much each municipality was contributing, and then use that percentage to determine the additional local costs.
“What that does is, it applies the exact same analysis of first, ‘What is that municipality’s student population, and how much of the resources are they consuming?’ And then secondly, ‘Have they exceeded that municipality’s presumed ability to pay?’” said Sinclair.
The third plan uses methods similar to the second plan, but instead of applying to the EPS, it applies to the additional local funding, which is roughly 12 percent of the overall cost.
The fourth and final plan is the one generally agreed to be the easiest to understand and fairest for everyone. This plan would look at funding on a per-student basis, and require a municipality to provide funding based upon the number of students that they have. This plan also takes into account any state subsidies that each municipality receives, and allows each municipality to use those subsidies to reduce their own costs, versus distributing them district-wide. This would allow a municipality to reduce their own costs with state subsidies, and the amount of money a municipality is required to provide will be based entirely on how many students that municipality sends into the district.
“It is a clear and simple way to represent to folks how things are being done,” said Jonathan Davis, town administrator for West Bath. “We’re willing to change, we’re willing to find something that’s equitable for everybody.”
The budget committee determined the fourth option would be the best in the long run. It is the timing of when this plan will be instituted that has caused a small smattering of controversy.
When the committee voted on the best time to implement the plan, things got hazy. An initial vote was taken, and the cost-per-student model received a 3-2 vote for being implemented in 2014. However, the RSU 1 school board had requested a unanimous vote, and the committee agreed to try to meet that, as it sends a stronger message, so a second vote was taken. The second vote was 4-1 in favor of not implementing the plan until 2015, with Sinclair, the City of Bath’s representative, voting against the later implementation. However, this vote came with the caveat that it was certain to be implemented in fiscal year 2015.
The funding issues have also now led to the latest news: West Bath’s lawsuit against RSU 1, which is requesting $1.9 million. Essentially, through looking into the methods of funding, West Bath discovered that they have been wrongly forced to pay more than they should, at least according to their officials.
What happened is that the “one-third” model was applied to the additional 12 percent of costs and didn’t include the EPS. However, West Bath discovered that this one-third model should have applied to the total costs and not just the additional 12 percent.
“At the budgeting for this fiscal year, after this whole issue came around, the attorney said that it should have affected the whole costs and not just the additional costs,” said Davis. “Over the past four years, it has been administered under a different way than it should have been.”
That is the story so far. The changes to the funding will have to go to a district-wide vote, depending on what the school board decides is appropriate. Given the work the committee has put into the current decision, it is likely the school board will go along with what they have decided.
“I think the board should be able to get a fairly clear read on what the committee feels,” said Sinclair.
For voters in the district, this will mean their taxes may go up or down depending on the number of students in the district and the subsidies their municipality receives. Regardless, the governments of the five members of the district agree this method will be much fairer for everyone involved.