Despite a drumbeat of protest from small school districts, the Education Committee is not proposing much change to the state’s new school funding formula, instead supporting grants to encourage schools to share administrative functions and cut down on the number of school boards and superintendents.

At the same time, the committee wants to protect neighborhood schools for as long as possible, saying the schoolhouse’s presence in the community is what most parents care about.

Faced with a Tuesday deadline to report back to the Legislature on what, if any, changes should be made to the formula known as Essential Programs and Services, the committee is only recommending targeted changes – largely in transportation funding for large but rural School Administrative Districts.

About $1.2 million in transportation funding – set aside to satisfy appeals under EPS – will go to rural SADs with 1,250 students or more. Those school districts include SAD 3 in Thorndike and SAD 6 in Buxton. The money will restore 90 percent of the transportation funding they’re currently getting.

The committee also voted to distribute an additional $2 million among 73 of the state’s smallest schools, essentially increasing their allotment of state school aid by 2 percent in the 05-06 school year.

Other than that the committee is recommending no major changes to EPS for now, with the majority saying it is a work in progress that will get better with time when the state ramps up to funding 55 percent of education costs over four years and more money is distributed.

“It’s better than what we’ve had before,” said Sen. Libby Mitchell, D-Kennebec, committee co-chairman.

Mitchell instead asked for committee approval to pursue a proposal from Sen. Karl Turner, R-Cumberland, to use millions of dollars in the efficiency funds set up under EPS to encourage schools to merge administrative functions.

It has been dubbed Turner’s “hub and spokes” plan and would encourage districts to share administrative functions, like curriculum planning, transportation, payroll, budgeting and finance, while maintaining neighborhood schools.

Eventually it should lead to school districts working with one superintendent and one school board “of no more than nine members,” Turner proposed.

The money to fund such regional projects would come in the form of grants from the efficiency funds, put in the budget to encourage regionalization. There is $6.1 million left in incentive funds in 2006-07, increasing to $14 million the following year and $20 million the year after that.

All the efficiency funds for 2005-06 were used as transition money to make sure that no school district, regardless of declining enrollment or increased property values, lost money under the first year of EPS.

While committee member, Rep. Barbara Merrill, D-Appleton, objected to the notion of one school board for a number of towns, saying there would be a loss of local control, Rep. Connie Goldman, D-Cape Elizabeth, a former superintendent, said models exist for parent involvement. She cited the Parent Advisory Council as one example.

Merrill, however, said the committee was going in the wrong direction by trying to force schools to fit the EPS model. Using her own K-8 school in Appleton as an example, she said EPS only allows 8.1 teachers when the system employs 12

“I’m concerned the model doesn’t fit all,” she said.

Small schools protest

Merrill is part of the Save Our Small Rural Schools Coalition, made up of close to 40 legislators from both parties calling for changes in the EPS formula.

The coalition believes the formula favors urban or large school systems over rural ones, and is really designed to close small schools.

The group staged a rally last week and promises to push its own legislation if the Education Committee fails to act.

Under EPS, if school districts are losing enrollment and their property values are going up, they lose school aid. To make matters worse, small schools can’t show economies of scale under the school funding formula, and end up able to justify only a part-time arts, music or physical education teacher based on their student-to-teacher ratios.

Merrill, whose local school sends kids to high schools in Camden and Rockport, said her fear is the local Town Meeting will cut funding for the K-8 school based on the state-mandated formula.

“When we go to Town Meeting in June, we’re going to have to explain why we’re 26 percent over EPS,” she said.

“It’s not a school problem,” said Rep. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro. “It’s a community and economic development problem,” because rural Maine’s economic base has been decimated and towns are losing population.

He said if the government can come to a community’s aid when a mill is about to close, “why not the same response when small schools are threatened?”

Trahan is proposing the state use $18 million in efficiency funds in the school funding bill to keep small schools whole, rather than encourage regionalization.

“We wouldn’t have to do anything to anybody,” in terms of taking money away from other districts to give to small schools. “We could use it as a cushioning,” he said.

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