September 20, 2020

Millinocket analyzes results of school costs study

MILLINOCKET — A study comparing Millinocket’s costs for education to 12 similar schools revealed that its instructional costs were slightly higher, while other costs were the same or lower.

In a joint session Wednesday, members of the Town Council and the School Board received the results of the study prepared by Walter G. McIntire, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Research and Evaluation at the University of Maine.

“I do think you are in good shape,” McIntire told town and school officials. “If you had 50 to 100 more students, you would look better,” he said. McIntire was referring to the fact that Millinocket’s per pupil cost of $6,042 was nearly $900 above the state average.

The official said the more students a school district has, the lower its per pupil costs are because those costs are spread out over a larger number of students. Millinocket Superintendent Brent Colbry agreed.

Colbry said the number of students attending school can dramatically affect per pupil costs. Millinocket’s student enrollments have dropped by 205 since the 1993-94 school year. Its staffing levels have dropped by about 58. The amount of money raised from local taxes to support the school budget has dropped by about $924,000.

Despite those cuts, Millinocket’s per pupil costs are still above the state average. Unless future declines in enrollment are very large, such as a few hundred, or are all in one or two grade levels where staff can be reduced, officials said many of the school’s fixed costs will still remain the same. Even if three or four teaching positions were cut because of declining enrollments, Colbry said it would not bring the per pupil costs down to the state average.

McIntire said one way the Millinocket school department could lower its per pupil costs was by making efforts to attract more tuition students, which would bring more revenue and spread the costs over a larger number of students.

The comparative study, based on 1997-98 data, revealed that Millinocket spends more per pupil for education, but considering the town’s tax base, Millinocket residents are paying proportionally less money for education than the other 12 communities.

In comparison to the 12 other school districts, Millinocket spent less for debt service and transportation; about 1.1 percent more for operating its schools; spent the same percentage of its budget as other schools do for general administration and school administration; and spent about 2.5 percent more for instruction.

Had the cost of retiree health insurance, estimated to be about $190,000, been removed from the comparison, Colbry said, it would show that Millinocket was spending nearly one percent less for instruction than the other 12 schools.

Colbry said 96 percent of the 12 school systems pay 100 percent of the cost of single health insurance premiums; 93 percent pay 100 percent of the costs for a two-person plan; and 90 percent of the schools pay 100 percent of the cost of the family plan. For teachers hired since July 1, 1996, Millinocket pays 90 percent of the cost for a single, a two-person and the family health insurance plans.

Millinocket’s pupil-to-teacher ratios were the highest compared with the other schools in the study.

Also, Millinocket’s salaries for teachers, which average $35,270, were slightly higher than the state average of $34,906, but were less than five of the 12 other schools. But, the salaries Millinocket pays its beginning teachers, which is $20,149, was the third lowest compared with the other schools and lower than the state average of $21,997. Officials said offering good benefits may help balance out the low salaries.

Considering the retirees health insurance benefit offered by Millinocket along with its veteran work force, McIntire said school costs were not out of line. “Given the changing economic conditions in the community, you have done amazingly well,” he said.

McIntire’s study also revealed that Millinocket students’ MEA scores in math and reading were among the highest; its dropout rate was the lowest; and its postsecondary rate of kids going on to college was in the top four.

Responding to Town Council Chairman Gail Fanjoy, McIntire said an ideal size high school had student enrollments of between 600 and 800.

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