A road sign on State Road welcomes drivers to West Bath, Maine, as seen on March 5, 2018. Credit: Seth Koenig / BDN

WEST BATH, Maine — Flush with revenue, Maine is on the verge of raising its share of basic K-12 public education funding to a historic threshold. It means little in this small peninsula town crossed by U.S. Route 1.

Like many other communities, West Bath’s property values are driven up by proximity to the ocean. But this is not the gold coast. The town has a median household income of nearly $70,000, higher than the rest of Sagadahoc County but still making for a “blue collar” town where taxes are hard for many to pay, said Keith Hinds, the town’s school board chair.

Gov. Janet Mills’ updated two-year budget proposal includes $187 million to increase the state’s spending on public education to the 55 percent threshold. But West Bath and roughly 100 other cities and towns will not see an increase because they are so-called “minimum receivers” — those with such high property values that they do not qualify for that pool of state aid.

“There’s just not an ounce of fat left in our budget,” Hinds said the day after voters approved a new $3.9 million school budget. “I’m sure anybody who talks about budgets is going to say that, but we literally had conversations this budget cycle about $100 expenditure lines.”

Additional funding will mean millions more for many school districts in Maine, which falls in the middle of the pack when it comes to K-12 education funding, but not every district will be able to access it instantly and just eight districts will be lifted out of minimum receiver status. It highlights the challenges of equitably funding public education through highly variable property taxes. The funding formula should be revisited as school needs shift, advocates say.

The historic increase is poised to cruise through the Maine Legislature after dismal pandemic revenue projections were buoyed by unprecedented federal aid, resulting in the state revising estimates up by $940 million over two years. Once passed, the budget will live up to the 2004  referendum requiring a level of funding first promised by lawmakers 20 years earlier.

It has been trumpeted by the Mills administration as a form of property tax relief, as increasing the state share would theoretically shift burden away from the property tax. All school districts usually receive some state money regardless of minimum receiver status, either through subsidies for debt service, special education or allocations for lower-income students.

Maine’s funding formula was revised in 2006 with the aim of being more equitable, said Paula Gravelle, school finance manager for the Department of Education. Her main job is to determine how much state money schools get, which is roughly determined by how many low-income students the district serves, its staffing levels and its ability to pay for basic services.

“We want to make sure it gets to those who really need it the most,” she said.

The eight districts that will no longer be minimum receivers include Scarborough and the Bethel-based Regional School Unit 44, but most of them are in smaller towns. They include Hancock and Castine all the way down to Winterville and Topsfield. The latter two have just just over 200 residents in Aroostook and Washington counties, respectively. They will lose the status under the increase because education costs will rise higher than state-calculated valuations.

The increase would be a major boon to many districts, according to Department of Education data. Portland would get $6.2 million more in state aid. Bangor would get $1.7 million. But it is uneven. The Pleasant Point school district — one of three Maine tribal school districts that gets 99 percent of funding from the state — would get just $1,200 more.

The timing is proving to be a challenge. The Legislature will not take up a new budget until late June at the earliest. Municipalities and school districts typically approve budgets in March or June, so the money may not be accessible for many until next year.

In the Kennebec County town of Fayette, property taxes are boosted by two lakes, but many work at the paper mill in nearby Jay. It now gets 10 percent of its funding from the state, a sum that Nancy Cronin, a school board member, described as “quite low.”

She said the news of a possible increase in education funding was hopeful, but that the state should not stop there. Cronin believes the state should institute a “floor” of investment in each child where it either commits a certain percentage of funding or a set amount per child.

“Every child should have an investment in their education,” she said.

There is still “discomfort” around how schools are funded, said Steven Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, which represents administrators and school boards. He said the state could next explore more funding for renovation and capital funds, plus new equipment for expensive career and technical programs.

Post-pandemic burdens may also look different. Mark Hurvitt, the superintendent in five towns on the Blue Hill Peninsula, said the district kept its budget largely flat this year while putting a full-time nurse in each of its schools to monitor children, a move that was critical to keeping students in school full-time.

While more state funding would be nice, he said his district is frugal and more money would not change much.

“We’re used to not getting much money from the state and we’re going to continue to act accordingly,” Hurvitt said.