AUGUSTA, Maine — The state’s formula for distributing education funding to communities is under siege again in the Legislature, this time with support from the Department of Education and several key legislators.

The Department of Education’s Essential Programs and Services formula, which is used to define what the state will pay for in public schools as well as how much, is one of the most complex and cumbersome formulas in state government. As one glib speaker at a string of public hearings on the issue Wednesday in Augusta put it, about two people in Maine understand it, and they disagree with each other about how it works. Despite its complexity, the formula’s effects since it was enacted are easy to see, particularly in rural and economically disadvantaged areas that have seen their state education funding devastated since EPS was enacted in 2004.

“In my memory, no other policy has had such an enormously detrimental impact on education in rural areas,” Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, the prime sponsor of a bill that would overhaul the formula, told the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee Wednesday. “An effort to help disadvantaged school districts became the opposite … It is an urban formula foisted on a rural state, and it has had profoundly negative consequences for the goal of affording a sound education regardless of a child’s ZIP code.”

Raye and others — including a contingent of several school and municipal officials from Washington County — presented the education committee with data that show some of the state’s richest communities enjoying increased state aid while the poorest ones see their subsidies decline, sometimes at alarming rates.

Between the 2004-05 and the 2008-09 school years when EPS first was used, according to Raye, the relatively prosperous town of Yarmouth saw an increase of $1 million, or 116 percent, in its state aid, despite a 36-student dip in enrollment. Jonesport, in that same four-year period, lost almost $500,000, a decrease of more than 95 percent.

EPS originally was developed as a way to ensure that students in all Maine schools received a fair share of state education dollars by defining programs that helped students meet the state’s Learning Results, a set of government-mandated benchmarks for students. The state pays for a specific list of programs under EPS, and municipalities pay for programs and services that aren’t on the list, such as sports.

Michael Cormier, superintendent of the Mt. Blue Regional School Unit, has been a student of the formula since it was put in place and over the years has become one of its more vocal critics. He said the formula has so many moving parts that it’s nearly impossible to predict what long-term effect even a minor tweak to the formula will have.

“I’ve tried predicting those things in the past, but I’ve just given up,” he said to the Bangor Daily News on Wednesday. “There are so many moving parts.”

Before EPS, said Cormier, the state used a relatively simple formula to distribute education funding that was based on a per-student base rate, reimbursements for transportation, special education and vocational education and the state’s share of debt for capital projects. EPS uses dozens of considerations ranging from students’ grasp of the English language to professional development activities for teachers to municipalities’ property valuations.

The Education Committee heard presentations Wednesday on 11 bills that would alter the EPS formula in some way. Some presenters suggested the state needs an independent review of the formula to determine what changes would help the situation, or even whether the overall formula is worth fixing. No one testified in opposition to any of the bills that were presented Wednesday.

Rep. Mary Pennell Nelson, D-Falmouth, represents towns that presumably would lose money if state education dollars are shifted more toward rural communities, and Nelson said she’s not ready to accept that EPS alone is to blame for rural communities receiving fewer dollars. That’s why she favors an independent review of the system before the Legislature makes major changes. If the review confirms that the formula is depriving rural or poorer areas of their share of funding, Nelson said she and her constituents would accept changes to the formula.

“Everyone has an interest in the state doing something that is fair,” said Nelson to the Bangor Daily News. “I don’t think that anyone would object to something that is fair.”

Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, who sponsored three of the bills that were under consideration Wednesday, cited a September 2010 nationwide study called “Is School Funding Fair? A National Report Card.” The study gave Maine a grade of “A” for the amount of spending on education relative to income, but a “D” for its method in distributing the money. Johnson, along with several other legislators and education officials, suggested that Maine commission an independent study of the EPS system — even though according to the Legislature’s fiscal office such a study could cost $400,000 or more. Johnson suggested that the study could be done by the Legislature’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, though others suggested that body has a years-long backlog of work on its agenda.

Many of these suggestions have failed in past legislative sessions, but Education Committee co-chairman Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said the difference this year is that there is support for changes to EPS from high-ranking officials, including Department of Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen and Gov. Paul LePage. Langley said he expects the committee will meld the best aspects of the bills presented Wednesday into a single bill — or possibly delay that work in favor of conducting the independent review of EPS.

Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, the ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, said he and other legislators he has polled prefer the latter option.

“There’s a lot of support for the independent review and analysis,” he said. “With a complex formula like EPS, we shouldn’t make too many changes without taking a closer look at it. Everyone has their own suspicions about what’s wrong with it.”

Bowen, in written testimony, offered the resources of the Department of Education to help the committee gather data.

“We urge you to consider the proposed changes in a comprehensive manner, rather than through individual pieces of legislation,” wrote Bowen. “As many of you know from past experience, a single change to the EPS law can have many consequences, intended and unintended.”

As legislators sought to understand the formula’s impact on rural communities, Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, D-Portland, questioned Jonesport Selectman Bimbo Look about what has happened in that town that might have caused a more than 95 percent drop in state education funding since 2004. In his own way, Look said nothing much has changed except for the funding formula.

“All I can tell you is that we’ve got a lot of gold balls in our trophy cabinet,” said Look, referring to the success of local high school sports teams. “If something doesn’t change soon, we’ll have to start melting them down.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.