A nearly 6 percent bump in the tuition rate Lincoln Academy can charge school districts was more than AOS 93 towns had budgeted for this year, but L.A.’s head of school said the increase is more in line with traditional increases than those in recent years.
Each December, the Maine Department of Education releases figures on the maximum allowable tuition a private secondary school can charge a school administrative unit for a student, barring certain circumstances.
Calculated using statutory formulas, the maximum is the lower of either the school’s average cost for a secondary student in the previous school year (minus certain things like special education, major capital outlay, or debt service), or the statewide average of expenditures per public secondary student.
Each year, save one, since at least the 2005-2006 school year, Lincoln Academy’s maximum tuition has been capped by the statewide average, according to the DOE’s website.
Annual increases to the statewide average started dropping after 2008-2009, limiting the annual tuition increase for L.A. to as little as 0.39 percent in 2011-2012.
Despite this statutory cap, Lincoln Academy Head of School David Sturdevant said via email that town academies like L.A. actually spend as much as $1,000 to $4,000 per publicly funded pupil beyond the tuition rate.
Sturdevant’s position is borne out in the figures, at least for the current year: Lincoln Academy’s tuition rate was capped at $9,754.13 for the 2014-2015 school year, but the school’s per-pupil expenditure the year before, as calculated by the statutory formula and before an inflation adjustment, was actually $13,872.51, according to Paula Gravelle, the DOE’s school finance coordinator.
The one year L.A.’s tuition didn’t match the statewide average, the 2009-2010 school year, it was due to a supplemental budget bill that reduced the maximum allowable tuition for private schools to 2 percent below the state average to reflect a reduction in state aid to school administrative units, according to the bill’s summary.
In addition to a private school’s tuition rate, the schools are also allowed to charge a 6 percent insured value factor to sending districts (though districts can agree to pay up to 10 percent), making up its full maximum allowable tuition.
Sturdevant described the insured value factor as “a sum of money designated to town academies in recognition of the fact that they do not qualify for any state or federal capital funds.”
The 6 percent insured value factor rounds out Lincoln Academy’s maximum allowable tuition at $10,339.38 for this school year.
The timing of the tuition rates’ release each December makes budgeting for private secondary students a bit of a fuzzy target. School boards have to craft their budgets – and get them passed – months before the DOE releases its tuition numbers for the year.
For school districts with a lot of secondary students who attend private schools, changes in the tuition rate can make a big impact if they do not build contingencies into their budgets.
In AOS 93, which includes the towns of Bremen, Bristol, Damariscotta, Jefferson, Newcastle, Nobleboro, and South Bristol and has no public high school, about 92 to 93 percent of its high school students attend private schools, and about 80 percent attend Lincoln Academy, according to Superintendent Steve Bailey.
The AOS towns only budgeted for a 4 percent increase for the private school tuition, Bailey said, an increase similar to last year’s 3.8 percent bump.
The increase actually came down at about 5.9 percent, but the variation was of little consequence for most of the AOS 93 towns because they had built contingency funds into their budgets, Bailey said.
Jefferson, however, got hit with sort of a double whammy this year. Not only did the school budget pass without contingency funds for this sort of issue, according to AOS 93 Business Manager Kati Hunt, but, as of Feb. 20, the town had 12.5 (equivalent) more secondary students enrolled than were originally budgeted for.
Based on those Feb. 20 numbers, the two factors of tuition rate and number of students had impacted Jefferson’s budget by nearly $132,000. Officials have cautioned, however, that the enrollment figures continue to change day to day.
Jefferson’s education budget woes, compounded with increased costs related to special education and other factors, have been an ongoing topic of discussion for the town’s school committee.
A clear path toward resolution has not yet been hammered out, but in the meantime school officials have been working to identify savings and line freezes in Jefferson’s K-8 education budget to help accommodate the unanticipated costs.
While the tuition rate increase means more out of the taxpayers’ pockets in AOS 93 than planned, Sturdevant said the 5.9 percent rate bump reflects increases Lincoln Academy used to experience on a fairly regular basis.
Almost all of the school’s roughly 480 non-boarding students attend Lincoln Academy at the maximum allowable tuition rate, Sturdevant said. The school has about 65 boarding students.
“More money per pupil simply means that we come closer to meeting the actual cost of educating our students. In the past, due to stagnant or extremely low [maximum allowable tuition] increases, schools have had to cut programs and services,” Sturdevant said.
Before the 3.79 percent increase to the tuition rate for 2013-2014, Lincoln Academy’s tuition rate (not including the insured value factor or other factors) had not increased by more than 0.92 percent annually since the 2009-2010 school year, when it went up 1.93 percent.
Comparatively, the rate increases in the 2006-2007, 2007-2008, and 2008-2009 school years all exceeded 5.5 percent, according to the DOE’s website.
According to Sturdevant, the years of smaller rate increases, combined with a declining local student population, did take a toll on Lincoln Academy.
The school went through a period of deferred maintenance on building roofs, window replacements, and replacing a nearly 20-year-old school bus, among other projects, Sturdevant said. Technology infrastructure was also affected.
“In addition, we eliminated the business education department, reduced our guidance staff, and saw a slight rise in average class size,” Sturdevant said. “Fortunately, whenever possible, we were able to achieve reduction in staff through attrition.”
“This year’s MAT rate, while higher than we had expected, is a better reflection of the norm based on past (non-recent) history,” he said.