Using LD1 report to bash school districts is insulting

Posted Feb. 08, 2010, at 7:28 p.m.

The State Planning Office is once again using its annual report on the legislation known as LD 1 to portray school districts as overspending if they are exceeding costs outlined in the Essential Programs and Services, or EPS, funding formula, even though EPS was never designed to cover all the programs needed for a comprehensive education.

In its latest report, the planning office says 87 percent of school districts are over EPS. That is the same percentage as last year, although the dollar amount has dropped statewide by $24 million.

The report comes out at a time when state aid to education is dropping dramatically due to the recession and there is a growing concern that more and more districts will be underfunding their programs.

Ironically, the LD 1 report that is lambasting local school districts for trying to offer their students a comprehensive education also talks about the state’s commitment to funding 55 percent of kindergarten through grade 12 costs — a requirement that has never been reached.

In fact, state share next year will be below 45 percent.

That was the focus of a discussion at the Legislature recently when the Education Committee talked about the burden being placed on local taxpayers as the state’s share of education costs drops. The concern is school programs will be underfunded if there is no relief from the state.

“I think there should be more attention drawn to undercommitting on EPS,” Jim Rier, planning director for the Department of Education, told the Education Committee, particularly if state aid for schools continues to drop beyond this biennium.

EPS was designed to assure that districts were spending enough to offer all students a core set of programs. It breaks down a basic education into component parts and assigns per-student dollar values and student-teachers ratios.

It does not cover things such as Advanced Placement courses, school sports, most extracurricular activities or even the lunch program. It also favors larger schools, some administrators say, because small schools cannot meet the student-to-teacher ratios defined in the formula, particularly for specialty classes such as foreign languages and the arts. They also cannot achieve the economies of scale needed to operate and maintain their buildings on what the formula allocates.

When voters statewide demanded the state pay for 55 percent of kindergarten through grade 12 education, the Legislature turned EPS into a spending cap under the legislation that came to be known as LD 1.

While LD 1 sets caps for state, local and county government, as well as schools, only school districts were given a cap that most already were exceeding when the law was adopted in 2005.

By contrast, the caps on state, county and municipal spending started with what was being spent in fiscal year 2005, with room to grow every year.

To make matters worse, the cost of education, as defined by EPS, was reduced by the Legislature in 2009 to help balance the budget. Predictably more districts were found to be “over EPS” when the cost of education was arbitrarily reduced by the state.

Using the LD 1 report to criticize school districts and local taxpayers for supporting their kindergarten through grade 12 budgets is not only backward thinking, but it also is insulting to those who continue to keep their focus on providing the best education they can afford for their students — a focus state government seems to have lost.

Christopher Galgay is president of the Maine Education Association. Ashley O’Brien is president of the Maine School Boards Association. Shannon Welsh is president of the Maine School Superintendents Association.

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