When it comes to school funding, Litchfield taxpayers may be stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Residents have expressed frustration about increasing costs and the fact that they must pay the greatest share of the budget in Regional School Unit 4 — the school district that also includes Wales and Sabattus — when Sabattus has more students than Litchfield.

Last summer, quite a few Litchfield residents opposed the district’s current $18.8 million budget, which was not approved until September after two earlier budgets were rejected by voters.

The current budget is 1.26 percent higher than last year’s $18.56 million budget, an increase that Superintendent Jim Hodgkin said is primarily due to changes in the state’s school funding formula that have driven up costs while providing less funding to the district.

But neither the state nor the school district has shown any signs of changing its funding formulas in a way that could provide great relief for Litchfield taxpayers.

Last month, Scott Weeks, a Litchfield resident who serves on the RSU 4 board, asked his fellow board members to consider changing the district funding formula. Under the current formula, a town’s total property tax valuation and the number of students in that town are each weighed equally when calculating that town’s portion of the pie.

So Litchfield, which has the highest property tax valuation of the three towns due partly to its high number of lake front properties, ends up paying the greatest share of the local taxes and a higher rate per student from the town. Residents there have criticized that use of tax valuation as a metric for ability to pay.

With about 470 students in RSU 4 schools, Litchfield will pay $3.77 million in local taxes to the district this year — or $8,021 per student. Sabattus, which sends 694 students, will pay $3.6 million — or $5,187 per student. Wales, which sends 242 students, will pay $1.29 million — or $5,342 per student.

But in November, after Weeks proposed changing the formula so that a town’s student population is weighed more heavily than tax valuation when calculating local taxes, the board voted 6-1 to continue with the existing formula. Two other Litchfield board members did not attend the Nov. 30 meeting when that vote happened.

“I’m on the short end of this argument,” Weeks said before the vote. “I fully believe that if we don’t put some other options out there, I don’t see Litchfield ever supporting another budget.”

Without a change in the local funding formula, it’s not clear Litchfield taxpayers will be able to get relief from what they see as unfair share of the tax burden in RSU 4. Hodgkin, the superintendent, said he sympathizes with the town’s frustrated residents, but he also gets why other board members did not agree to the change proposed by Weeks.

“I 100 percent get why the people of Litchfield are frustrated,” Hodgkin said, “but I also get why the school board won’t collectively ask their own towns to pay more so one town can have relief.”

The district agreed on the funding formula eight years ago. At recent meetings, several Sabattus officials have said that in other years they thought they owed an unfair share of the tax bill.

At the November meeting, Wales board member Robert English said he has researched other districts’ funding formulas and found that tax valuation often weighs heavily when school districts decide how much each town owes in local taxes.

Another place where school funding can change is at the state level, but Hodgkin said he is not optimistic any changes in Augusta will translate to a lesser burden for Litchfield taxpayers, because those changes would be more likely to change how much funding is available for schools, not how those funds are dispersed.

“I don’t see any dramatic changes to the funding formula that would impact distribution,” Hodgkin said. “Litchfield gets whacked hard with (the state’s funding model). They pay the largest share of the three towns.”

In general, Hodgkin said, the state has provided less aid overall to RSU 4 in recent years, while also asking the district to raise more money to qualify for those dollars. “Both have a net impact on taxpayers,” he said. “Any time that happens, Litchfield takes it on the chin.”

While Hodgkin said he understands Litchfield’s frustration, he also said the idea — expressed by some Litchfield residents last summer — that the town is “overinflating” its budgets is not accurate.

Some Litchfield residents have asked Hodgkin what it would take to withdraw from the school district, but another member of the RSU 4 board, Joan Thomas of Litchfield, said she doesn’t think that will help local students. Thomas also said she doesn’t think anyone in Litchfield is seriously considering withdrawing from the district at the moment.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker


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