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Study: Maine Should Boost Education Funding by $260M
10/30/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine faces some serious challenges funding public schools. Districts across the state complain about less money coming from the state each year. But making up the difference through higher local property taxes also remains unpopular. A new study, commissioned by the Legislature, calls on the state to boost the amount it spends on public education by more than $200 million, while also reducing the property tax burden on Maine's poorest families. As Jay Field reports, reaching consensus in Augusta won't be easy.

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School finance can be confusing, so here's a brief explanation: To pay for public education, Maine relies on a funding model called Essential Programs and Services, or EPS. There are two parts to the process. In the first, the state calculates that amount of money each school district in the state should get, per-pupil.

Factors like attendence, staffing needs, salary and benefits and the amount Maine gets from the federal goverment to support poor students are part of the equation. Jim Rier, Maine's acting Commissioner of Education, has spent years overseeing the process.

"EPS is defining a cost," he says. "The funding law is defining how much each community needs to commit to that."

Let's say, for example, that a district needs $10 million. Rier says each community in that district gets a local tax, or mill, rate, "to determine their contribution to that $10 million. In a very wealthy community, that committed amount, required by locals, might be $9 million and the state's share might be $1 million. Or, in a very poor community, their contribution might be $1 million and the state share might be $9 million."

It sounds fair. But in recent years, state funding for education, the amount approved by the Legislature every year, has been falling. Last year, it was a little over 45 percent of the total EPS figure. That's roughly 7 percent lower than it was four years earlier, and well below the 55 percent mandated by voters in 2004.

It's a threshold the state has never reached. It's also one of many reasons that the Legislature decided to pay a team of outside school finance experts $450,000 to evaluate Maine's approach.

"If you go back to this chart, it shows you we hit the ratios, 55-45," says Lawrence Picus, with Picus, Odden and Associates. This week Picus and his partners presented members of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee with a report they produced that lays out alternatives to Maine's EPS.

Across Maine, the complaints from districts with more modest property values are similar. Declining state money for education is putting pressure on local taxpayers who are already financially strapped. "Probably you want to look at some kind of targeted assistance," Picus says.

Lawmakers, Picus suggested, could use the state's Circuit Breaker program to lower the property tax burden on poor families. "The advantage to the Circuit Breaker would be not only that it would more closely target it to the district you refer to, but anywhere they happen to reside across the state of Maine."

But the Circuit Breaker program has had its funding cut in recent years. The Picus Odden report also calls for increasing the state share of general purpose education funding by $260 million a year.

"Maine needs to move to a funding formula that relies less on local property taxes," says Janet Fairman, an associate professor of education at the University of Maine at Orono, where she studies school finance issues. Fairman says that would mean raising more money for education through fees or higher state taxes.

"And I think in the current environment that is still very strongly anti-tax, and concern about the slow economic recovery in our state, that would be exceptionally difficult to do," she says.

Especially, it would seem, heading into a year where the state's incumbent governor and all members of the Legislature face re-election campaigns.



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