The way the state funds K-12 education is complex.
It starts with the amount of money earmarked for schools. This year, Gov. Paul LePage is proposing $1 billion – about $20 million, or 2 percent, less than the state spent on public schools this budget cycle.
That dollar figure is plugged into an “essential programs and services” formula, which determines how much money is needed for each school district to provide a baseline education. The formula also determines what percentage of that total amount the state will pay, and what percentage the local community will pay.
Among the formula’s key factors are:
• State valuation. Wealthier towns are expected to fund more, if not almost all, of their school costs. So-called “low receiver” or wealthy towns get less money, and poorer towns get more. This year, Scarborough saw its state share drop from 10.6 percent to 6.7 percent.
• Student body profile. The state pays a per-pupil amount, but increases that figure for students who need special education services or are disadvantaged.
• Staff-to-student ratio. The state determines baseline staffing levels needed for every employee, such as one elementary teacher for every 17 students and one health worker for every 800 students. This year, LePage increased the class size ratio, resulting in less money for teachers.
• Support costs. The state pays a flat per-pupil amount for certain costs, such as $367 per elementary school pupil for supplies, and $1,073 per student for operations and maintenance. The governor cut administration costs, which previously were funded at $233 per pupil statewide.
One misunderstood element of the funding formula is the much-discussed 55 percent funding mandate. Voters passed a measure more than a decade ago that called for 55 percent state funding every year. But that is 55 percent of the overall education funding – not of each district. Wealthy towns pay most of their costs, while poorer towns pay less.
The EPS formula spells out what percent of the total the state will pay, and what percent the town must pay.
That figure, however, is not a cap. About two-thirds of Maine communities have school budgets bigger than the baseline amount in the formula.
For example, under the formula last year, Portland needed a baseline budget of $80.5 million, of which the state funded $15.5 million, or 20 percent. But voters approved a $103.6 million budget. The state doesn’t pay any more if the local community decides on a bigger budget.
The state valuation, which is a rolling average of three years’ worth of data, can change significantly year to year. As towns see economic growth, the formula adjusts the state share downward, and vice-versa.
But some valuation outcomes are not obvious.
This year, for example, Scarborough saw its state share drop to 6.7 percent. But in Falmouth and Yarmouth, also considered wealthy communities in general, the state will pay 31 percent and 26 percent, respectively, of their school EPS costs. In Cape Elizabeth, the state will fund 11 percent of EPS costs.
In terms of sheer dollars, the state spends the most money on Lewiston: $50.8 million, or 74 percent of its $68.8 million EPS budget. Portland has a similar EPS budget – $80.5 million – but gets only 17 percent, or $13.5 million in state allocation.
The state website detailing each district’s essential programs and services funding is at http://www.maine.gov/doe/eps/.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: