Sunday, March 9, 2014
AUGUSTA -- A review of Maine's funding formula for schools could have far-reaching consequences for school staff members, students and taxpayers.
Even so, attendance was small at a public forum held Thursday to gather input about shortcomings in the formula and factors to be accounted for in any legislative reforms.
Five people testified Thursday, most of them representatives of the state's education associations.
The man leading the review, which the Legislature commissioned last year, said he expects to hear more input after his firm delivers its first report this spring.
"Typically you get more feedback after you make the first report and people have something to respond to," said Lawrence Picus, principal partner of Lawrence O. Picus and Associates and a professor at the University of Southern California.
Picus told the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on Thursday that he will meet with several groups of education professionals around the state this summer to help build a model of adequate financing.
Committee Chairwoman Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, said the public should have a chance to give input as well.
"In my district, there are a great number of citizens who have a great interest in how this turns out," she said.
Since 2004, Maine has used the Essential Programs and Services model, often called EPS, to determine how much money each school district needs to spend to provide an adequate education. Calculations are based largely on prescribed staff-to-pupil ratios, with adjustments for characteristics of the student population and geographic factors.
The state then uses property values to determine how much each community should contribute to the EPS amount, and a state subsidy covers the rest.
There have long been complaints about perceived flaws or lack of equity in the model, leading the Legislature to appropriate $450,000 for an independent review.
Picus & Associates has done similar studies in several other states, including one in Vermont that concluded a year ago.
At Thursday's public hearing with the education committee, common themes in the testimony included the state's under-funding of education and the illogic in penalizing districts that receive federal money to help low-income and special education students.
Maine Education Association lobbyist John Kosinski said it's difficult to judge the effectiveness or adequacy of the EPS model because the state has never met the mandate of providing 55 percent of the funding for the model, as approved by voters in a 2004 referendum.
"We got close in 2008 -- 54 percent," Kosinski said. "And over the past couple of years, we have added new things to the definition of EPS to make that number look larger, but that doesn't mean there's more going into classrooms."
Kosinski said he hopes Maine's funding model will provide more support for teachers' professional development and help raise teacher pay closer to national averages.
Two superintendents -- Virgel Hammonds, of Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2, and Paul Stearns, of Guilford-based RSU 80 -- criticized the treatment of Title I dollars in the EPS model. Title I is a federal program that funds extra services for low-income students, and Maine deducts that money from districts' state allocations.
"Why on earth there is an allocation adjustment to take money away from poor children is a mystery," Stearns said, "and it's been a sore point for a while."
Stearns, who is also president of the Maine School Superintendents Association but said he was speaking only on behalf of his district, said the fix is not as simple as eliminating that deduction, because it would create problems elsewhere.
"When you tinker with that, I believe it's about a $30 million statewide swing in resources, and there will be districts that will be devastated by losses, just in the other direction," he said.
Maine school districts also receive federal money from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and that is also deducted from their EPS allocation -- a concern raised by Jill Adams, executive director of Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities.
Picus and Associates is expected to deliver its first report, a review of the EPS model and funding formulas in other states, by April 1. By Dec. 1, it will produce a report with in-depth analysis of recommended alternatives to the EPS model.
Susan McMillan -- 621-5645