THUMBS UP to officials in School Administrative District 59 for setting a series of public meetings to discuss spending with taxpayers in front of what may be a very difficult budget season.

The district is holding seven meetings, starting Monday, as officials wait to hear how the value of the Madison Paper mill will figure into next year’s state aid. The value of the mill, the town’s largest taxpayer, dropped from $229.7 million to $80 million.

State aid to education is based, in large part, on a district’s perceived ability to pay, with districts with lower property values receiving more aid. But since the state uses a three-year average of property values to determine aid, SAD 59’s check from the state will not fully reflect the loss in the mill’s value for four years.

Madison selectmen have appealed the town valuation being used in state calculations, and they will meet later this month with their counterparts in Skowhegan, which is dealing with a similar drop in value for its mill. The boards may then pursue legislation that would help communities suffering from sudden, drastic decreases in property valuation.

The state began using three-year averages to help communities that were previously seeing drops in state aid because of large, year-to-year increases in property values. The problem was particularly stark in lakeside towns where steady increases in waterfront property values raised the town’s overall valuation but didn’t benefit the vast majority of residents financially.

In Madison and Skowhegan, something close to the reverse is happening. Both towns are poorer because the mills lost value, but the state formula does not yet recognize it.

Selectmen are right to pursue a legislative remedy, and lawmakers should listen closely.

But the towns also have to plan for the worst, and keeping taxpayers informed throughout the process is the best way to do that.

THUMBS DOWN to a report out this week underlining the heavy student loan burden for graduating seniors in Maine.

According to the annual report by the Project on Student Debt, 2013 graduates of public and private nonprofit colleges and universities in Maine had an average debt of $29,934, seventh highest in the country. That’s up slightly from last year’s report, when Maine also ranked seventh.

The good news is that, overall, borrowing per student has fell 10 percent in the last three years, although that trend isn’t yet reflected in debt levels. Also, tuition prices are increasing at a slower rate, though still faster than inflation.

Still, lawmakers must continue to push initiatives that both lower the cost of education and provide students with less onerous options for paying back debt.

Not included in the Project on Student Debt report are private for-profit colleges, which are often the source of student debt horror stories. On average, for-profit colleges are more expensive, leave students — many who don’t graduate — with higher levels of debt, and have less success placing students in jobs following graduation.

President Barack Obama has issued tougher, new regulations for for-profit schools, but more is needed.

THUMBS UP to the eight dental offices across the state, including Northwoods Dental in Skowhegan, that provided free care last Friday.

The sixth annual Dentists Who Care for ME day addresses a significant need. In Somerset County, for example, more than 48 percent of residents have not received dental care in the last year, largely because of cost. That can lead to a number of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and chronic pain.

Maine is one of 25 states that do not offer a dental benefit through Medicaid, or MaineCare as it is know here, ostensibly as a cost-saving measure. But, according to a state report, MaineCare in 2009 spent $6.6 million on avoidable dental ER visits and outpatient services, so the state still ends up paying for the work.


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