In this Jan. 21, 2021, file photo, Rycc Smith welcomes Montello Elementary School students as they board his bus outside the Lewiston after the first day back in nearly a month. Credit: Russ Dillingham / Sun Journal via AP

Enrollment in Maine’s public schools fell about 4 percent this fall, leaving many districts worried about how that could affect their state funding levels. Initial projections released from the state last week have eased those concerns, but local officials said they’ll still be forced to make tough budget decisions in the months ahead.

Over the past year, the Oxford Hills School District saw its enrollment drop by more than 200 students — almost a 10 percent decline. That had Superintendent Rick Colpitts bracing for bad news when initial state funding projections were released.

“Our best guess was that we were anticipating a 10 oercent reduction in state funding. So to come back in and find out it was really a 2.5 percent reduction, we feel like we’ve done OK,” he said.

It was a similar story for districts that have seen their student numbers shrink, as more parents turn to homeschooling or keeping younger students at home.

Maine Education Commissioner Pender Makin said the state has taken several steps to try to stabilize school funding next year as they grapple with the effects of the pandemic. They include lowering the student-to-teacher ratio in the state’s school funding formula, which Makin said will help prevent dramatic changes in funding compared with previous years.

“Looking at all of those numbers, this does appear as fair and balanced as possible under these circumstances. But that shouldn’t diminish the struggle of any school district that was hoping for, or expecting more money, and they somehow get less,” she said.

Makin added that the projections are also based on Gov. Janet Mills’ proposed biennial budget, which, if passed, would increase school funding overall and keep many districts’ budgets relatively stable. Superintendents said they appreciate that continued support from the state, but they still face difficult budget decisions.

“I believe this is going to be our toughest budget year, without question,” said Andrew Carlton, superintendent of RSU 4, located east of Lewiston, which saw a sizable enrollment drop this fall, leading to a state funding decline of about $700,000.

Carlton said that’s going to be a tough pill to swallow in his mostly rural district, which is without a large tax base.

“It’s going to be difficult. We’re looking at everything. Our big goal is maintain our current level of programming for our students. But we’re going to have to get really creative,” he said.

Maine schools did receive more than $180 million in federal aid earlier this month. But that can only be used to cover pandemic-related expenses, such as purchases of personal protective equipment or the hiring of more staff to support students who have fallen behind.

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said he’s hoping federal lawmakers can also pass new legislation that provides funding for states and municipalities, which would help stabilize school budgets over the next few years.

“Stabilizing our states and our cities will, in the long run, be what really helps schools have a stable source of funding. And just predictability,” he said.

And while Mills has pledged to increase school funding as part of her budget proposal, state lawmakers will ultimately have their say on spending priorities over the next few months.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.