EASTPORT, Maine — School and community leaders joined the state legislators who represent Down East Maine on the front lawn of Shead High School as Gov. Paul LePage signed landmark education funding reform into law on Monday.
“This place and this school are emblematic of schools across the state that will finally get a fair shake,” Senate President Kevin Raye, R-Perry, who sponsored the legislation, told a group of onlookers.
The bill, LD 1274, reforms the state’s controversial Essential Programs and Services school funding formula to be more equitable to rural school districts.
“This is a major event for rural Maine,” AOS 96 Superintendent Scott Porter said just before the bill signing. “We have been fighting for this reform for six years.” Porter said the 11 towns he oversees will gain almost $300,000 in new funding.
Porter and two East Machias selectmen, Bucket Davis and Will Tuell, spent countless hours in Augusta lobbying for the changes, Raye said.
Raye estimated that the bill will direct an additional $1.5 million to Down East schools beginning in the school year 2012-2013. Along Washington County’s coast, which is often described as land-rich and jobs-poor, disparity has been rampant.
Porter has often cited Jonesport as an example. Evolving into an artists’ haven, Jonesport has seen its valuation increased over the last few years while its job base stayed the same. In 2004, Jonesport received just over a half million dollars in school subsidy. But by 2009, that amount had been cut by 95.4 percent, to $23,707.
That scenario, said Porter, was repeated all along the coast. Steuben lost 67.6 percent of its subsidy over the same four-year period; Lubec lost 47.7 percent and was forced to close its high school; Eastport lost 39.3 percent and cut positions; and Machiasport lost 36.4 percent. Cutler, Beals, Milbridge and East Machias all lost funding, too.
During the same period, however, Porter said some wealthier communities in Maine saw state funding for education increase.
“This is a great day for rural Maine,” Raye said Monday. “For six years, rural Maine has suffered under a flawed, biased, anti-rural funding formula. For six years we objected and sought to correct it. This bill is an important step to bringing fairness to children everywhere in Maine.”
LePage said the new reform was just one step in seeking equity in education in Maine.
“The entire education system is under close review,” the governor said. He said Maine has “slipped in the quality of kids we are putting out” and it was vital that rural areas of the state have equity.
The new law contains three provisions designed to make the state’s education funding formula more equitable. It removes a provision in existing law that subjects state reimbursement for school personnel benefits to the labor market index, which has resulted in schools in lower-income areas being reimbursed at a lesser rate than wealthier communities.
It also adds a new provision allowing for a 10 percent increase in the staffing ratio for school districts of less than 1,200 students, acknowledging that smaller districts cannot achieve the economies of scale enjoyed by the state’s largest school districts.
The new law also provides an additional minimum subsidy for communities suffering the double whammy of being property-rich but with a low-income population. It ensures, for the first time, that a community’s ability to pay is considered as a factor in the formula.
After the bill signing, LePage took part in Eastport’s Independence Day parade. Also participating in the parade were U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.