Education commissioner hears concerns in Washington County about equity in funding

Posted May 25, 2011, at 8:55 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 03, 2011, at 2:59 p.m.
Stephen Bowen
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Stephen Bowen

MACHIAS, Maine — Changes in the state’s funding formula and less interference from the Maine Department of Education were the major topics discussed Tuesday night during a forum here with Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen.

One of the most poignant speakers was John Sprague, a member of the Marshfield school board and a 42-year teaching veteran, who addressed inequity in rural education funding.

“The state needs to take the attitude that each child in the state of Maine is important,” Sprague said. “Whatever it costs to educate a child in Portland should also be what is spent on a child in Machias.”

Bowen agreed with Sprague and told the 17 people who turned out for the forum held at Machias Memorial High School that a funding bill sponsored by Sen. President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, was amended and passed out of the Education Committee on Tuesday.

Washington County municipalities have been particularly hard-hit by the current property tax-based funding formula. In seaside or lakeside communities, property values have spiked — mostly because of land purchases by out-of-state buyers willing and able to pay more — while unemployment rates locally soar. “Land rich and jobs poor” has been the label placed on Washington County.

Among the county towns that have lost the greatest percentage of state aid to education during the seven years since the current formula was implemented are: Jonesport, 98 percent, Machiasport, 97 percent, Lubec, 93 percent, Cutler, 73 percent, and Eastport, 65 percent.

During that same period, however, Yarmouth enjoyed a gain of more than $1 million, representing a 116 percent increase in state subsidy for education, even as it lost students.

Raye’s bill would allow school districts to use the most recent state valuation or the average of the last three years’ valuations, whichever is lower, to allow districts time to prepare for loss of state funds. It also would change staffing ratios that determine state funding, and amend the per?pupil rate.

The Legislature’s Education Committee on Tuesday approved an amended version of Raye’s bill by a vote of 8 yes, 4 no, with one member absent.

The final text of the amended bill, as well as spreadsheets showing how each district’s funding would be affected, were still being worked on and unavailable Wednesday afternoon. It then must be voted on by the full Legislature.

Gov. Paul LePage supports the bill and has indicated he will sign it.

“I am very pleased with the amended bill,” Raye said Wednesday. “While it does not address every problem with the formula, it would provide a significant measure of fairness for rural Maine after six long years of the flawed and inequitable Essential Programs and Services school funding formula.”

When asked at Tuesday night’s forum whether he thought Raye’s bill would survive the full Legislature, Bowen said these types of initiatives ignite what he called “spreadsheet wars.” Once a funding change is proposed and the spreadsheets indicating the change in funding to individual districts is circulated, each representative or senator looks to see if the funding is up or down in their individual communities. “If it is down, they fight it,” Bowen said.

Bowen said that because the funding formula is complicated and inequitable, the Legislature’s Education Committee has asked for an independent study of school funding in the state. He said that study will be done by the end of 2011.

Also Tuesday night, Bowen was asked to promote a more hands-off approach from the state Department of Education. He replied this was a common theme as he traveled around the state on his listening tour.

“I’ve heard consistently that the Department of Education has a reputation for lurching from one thing to the next,” Bowen said. “Consolidation, for example, was more miss than hit, and districts are getting whiplash trying to deal with all the changes. Superintendents tell us not to be ambitious, to give them some breathing room.”

Bowen said one of the problems is that the department doesn’t have a plan or a vision, which he hopes to change. “We cannot be a one-size-fits-all plan developed around a table at Augusta. “

Bowen said the department should be a clearinghouse of ideas from educators in the field that really leaves districts to “do their own thing.”

“We need to take more of a supporting role, not be a regulatory agency,” he said.

Bowen visited Machias, Pleasant Point and Calais this week as part of a 100-day tour of the state. Bowen said the tour is intended to give him an in-person view of the concerns of school officials, parents and students around the state.

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