AUGUSTA, Maine — A major study of the state’s funding formula for public schools recommends increasing education spending by more than $260 million per year while also easing the property tax burden on poorer families.

Members of the Legislature’s Education Committee on Tuesday focused on what the best possible education system in Maine should look like while deferring what is sure to be a contentious debate about how to pay for it.

At issue is a months-long study and upcoming set of recommendations by Lawrence O. Picus and Associates, a California-based firm that was hired by the Legislature last year at a cost of $450,000. Picus is tasked with studying Maine’s Essential Programs and Services model, which determines what the state pays for in public schools and how that money is distributed. The goal is to target resources toward better student achievements while ensuring that state funding is distributed equitably, regardless of a municipality’s wealth — or lack of it.

The report’s major recommendations focused on early childhood education and teacher training, including adding five paid teacher workshop days to their school year, likely during student vacations; implementing pre-kindergarten programs in every district across Maine; reducing class sizes in grades K-4; hiring additional staff to mentor teachers and work with struggling students; and increasing funding to school districts for each student who qualifies for free or reduced school lunches. The study also recommends easing the property tax burden on poorer families through the state’s circuit breaker program, a property tax relief program that has seen deep cuts in recent years.

Though Picus outlined several scenarios the state could adopt, its preferred model would raise the state’s contribution to public schools by $227.5 million a year and require $32.7 million in additional local spending. Counting both state and local dollars, Maine spent a little more than $2 billion on public education in fiscal year 2012, according to a breakdown of school spending from the Department of Education.

Members of the Education Committee said they know that pushing Picus’s recommendations through the Legislature and across the governor’s desk in the current political and fiscal climate will be difficult, if not impossible. Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, who co-chairs the committee, said regardless of that the day-long discussion on Thursday started an important debate.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve talked about what education should look like in classrooms across our state,” she said. “I think that’s valuable …The discussion around money will come later.”

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said though she didn’t agree with every detail in the Picus report, she said more training for teachers in an era where schools and teachers are being held more accountable for student progress is a welcome concept, even if it comes with a steep price.

“There’s a cost to any kind of professional development that we do, but you have to weigh it against the opportunities it provides for kids,” she said. “If I go and learn a new skill or initiative, when I bring it back to my classroom my students benefit from that knowledge.”

Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said the study is valuable because it brings up a subject that is too often ignored.

“We’re very interested in having a look at EPS under any circumstances,” she said. “We’ll see what pieces, if any, come to be.”

Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, the Education Committee’s ranking Republican, said the Picus study will help the Legislature understand whether the Essential Programs and Services model is unfair or merely perceived to be unfair.

“We need to understand how to correct the inequities of the EPS system,” he said. “This effort shows a lot of good things to do if we’re adding money to the budget.”

Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, agreed.

“Everyone here believes education deserves more funding,” he said. “Then there’s the reality of our situation.”

The final version of the Picus report is due Dec. 1.


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.