7 school boards in greater Portland call for new state funding formula

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PORTLAND — Elected school officials in seven greater Portland communities are banding together to seek regional cost savings while calling on state officials to implement a revised school funding formula.

In the coming weeks, school boards in Portland, Falmouth, Yarmouth, Westbrook, South Portland, Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth will consider sending a formal resolution to the state Legislature.

The document, drafted by school board leaders, calls for more fair, equitable and transparent mechanism for determining how much state money communities receive for education.

The resolution is an expression of a frustration with the state funding process, which relies on a complex formula that typically steers money away from communities generating tax revenue to more rural communities.

School officials are typically forced to build their school budgets without clear guidance about the state’s contribution to education and then adjust those budgets when actual funding levels are approved by the Legislature.

Portland School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said he would like to see a more timely and sensible approach to determining state funding.

“It’s much more complex than I think it should be,” he said. “There have been times when we have gotten different numbers over the course of a week.”

Eglinton said the current formula for distributing funds doesn’t adequately account for urban school districts, which have large populations of economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners and special education students. 

Yarmouth School Committee Chairman David Ray said a precipitous drop in state education funding is increasing the burden on local property taxpayers, which he claims is bad policy.

“It’s a regressive tax,” Ray said, arguing school funding should come from income taxes, which are based on ability to pay.

The resolution criticizes the state funding mechanism known as the Essential Programs and Services model. Although residents across the state voted in 2005 in support of the state paying 55 percent of all education costs, the state has fallen short of the goal, according to the group. 

The ESP model is “so out of touch with the reality of required educational expenditures that more than 60 percent of Maine communities this year are obligated to provide local funding exceeding what is deemed essential under the model,” the group said in its resolution.

Ray put the goal of the resolution more simply.

“Part of what we’re saying (to the state) is you have to do a better job,” he said.

Not only was the 55 percent funding goal never reached, but the governor continues to order mid-year cuts in promised state education aid.

Of the seven communities, Portland’s $2.7 million cut was the largest mid-year curtailment of funds, followed by South Portland and Scarborough, which lost $1.2 and $1.1 million, respectively. Falmouth lost $700,000, Cape Elizabeth and Westbrook about $600,000 each, and Yarmouth $520,000.

Scarborough School Board Chairman Brian Dell’ Olio said the mid-year curtailments make it more difficult to make strategic changes to the school system.

“Scarborough lost $1.1 million in the curtailment this year – that’s a lot of money to lose mid-budget cycle,” Dell’ Olio said. “It makes it difficult to make thoughtful changes to your school system’s structure in mid-budget year.”

The resolution calls for a new mechanism that funds 55 percent of the public education costs; relies more on income tax revenue, rather than property tax; clearly addresses what is “essential” for education expenses; and provides districts with reliable funding levels that are not subject to “devastating” mid-year cutbacks.

“It is my hope that if multiple districts join together to communicate that frustration, state officials will make a more concerted effort to address the issues,” Cape Elizabeth School Board Chairwoman Rebecca Millett said.

Apart from the resolution, the school board leaders are planning to continue meeting to share ideas on budget cuts and explore possible areas of collaboration.

Portland, South Portland and Westbrook have already begun using a virtual high school, which allows students to take advanced placement courses online. The delivery of special education services is another area that may be considered by the group.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net