June 06, 2020

Getting down to school essentials

What an unhappy coincidence to have a survey exposing that superintendents dislike and distrust the state’s school-funding model just as the Legislature’s Education Committee reaffirms that this is the formula Maine will be using for quite a while. A hostess tip: If you’re planning a dinner party this weekend, don’t seat these two groups near each other; they’d end up annoying everyone.

PolicyOne Research of Portland, which says it did the survey as a public service, got responses from 48 of Maine’s 151 superintendents to questions about Essential Programs and Services (EPS), which is the school funding model Maine approved in 2003. A large percentage of the participating superintendents were from rural regions (35 of them were from just three counties – Washington, Aroostook and Penobscot). The arguments against EPS generally have come from small districts, so many of the conclusions were as expected.

Those include, for instance, that none of the superintendents think the funding model has been tested enough, most think it didn’t have enough input from them and 80 percent said it would not provide enough money for their schools. Worse, this penny-pinching billion-dollar plan inadequately supports special education, buildings, transportation, extracurricular activities, doesn’t help with the Learning Results, isn’t based on an adequate student-teacher ratio and, say the superintendents in case anyone was thinking anything good about EPS, won’t offset local taxes, at least not their town’s taxes but maybe someone else’s.

Broadly, the survey reports the school leaders think they “did not have enough information about EPS to adequately explain the program’s implications to their communities, although they agreed that they understood its implications for their [school] units.”

If I read that correctly, the superintendents are saying they might be able to answer an EPS question on a test, but they couldn’t show their work. The grade for that might be a C, for confusion, but having had two years to learn EPS through countless meetings, newsletters, work sessions, task forces and a nine-stop Powerpoint show from the state – which almost all the superintendents skipped – confusion is no longer good enough.

“For the foreseeable future, the horse we’re going to be riding is EPS,” said Sen. Karl Turner, R- Cumberland, a couple of days after the Education Committee, on which he serves, voted 10-3 to make some minor changes in the formula and, in doing so, declared its primacy.

That is good news for most districts because EPS will send more state money to their towns as it is phased in over four years. As the superintendents’ reaction suggests, however, not all towns are going to benefit. “No funding formula is going to save you if your property valuation is going up and your student population is going down,” Sen. Turner observes.

Valuations, especially along the coast, are going up and school populations have been falling for decades, most seriously in rural areas, where they may fall as much as 15 percent in the next 10 years. At some point – this is where those superintendents who believe EPS won’t send their districts enough money are right – the number of students per school building cannot be sustained. Maine is already one of the top spenders on education, so asking for more money isn’t likely and, anyway, the state doesn’t have any more.

What it does have in abundance, however, is superintendents. It has, in fact, about 50 percent more administrators per pupil than the national average in addition to having more schools. But unlike with its superintendents, its school buildings come with an abundant local desire to hold onto them, which is where Sen. Turner comes in.

He proposes what he calls a hub-and-spoke system – local towns keep their schools and their teachers, but they share a central administration regionally. Payroll, assessments, food service would come from one place for a region. The number of superintendents would decline dramatically. The money saved would go into the classroom – answering the complaint of the superintendents about EPS. It would not work everywhere, but would help in most places and is already helping in some.

“We’re all going to be faced with sustaining a community system in a cost-effective way,” says Education Commissioner Sue Gendron. “Hub and spoke achieves efficiencies so we can maintain classrooms and schools in our communities.”

The change would do something else: It would lift the role of superintendent, attracting more highly qualified candidates, demand a view of school financing beyond parochial interests and make them, individually and collectively, a more effective advocacy group in Augusta. As their responsibilities grew, so would their opportunities for not just disliking a funding model but for doing something about it.

Before filling out a survey on this sort of change, of course, they would want to learn enough to be able to explain it to their local communities.

Todd Benoit is the editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News.

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