Back to School Potpourri by Paul Mills

7 mins read
Paul H. Mills

The first few days of school have arrived. An eager, optimistic bright-eyed student body, refreshed from the long summer vacation, has now returned. In a few days the smiling faces may give way to bits and pieces of benign restlessness but in recent days our schools have been blessed with a degree of youthful contentment that one rarely sees at any other time.

Against the backdrop of this student-teacher honeymoon it’s a good time to pay a visit to a few of the more vital areas in the realm of Maine’s public education. Chief among them: the school funding formula.

In this, the observations of 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston come to mind. He asserted that the Schleswig-Holstein succession system was so complex that only three persons ever fully understood it. One of them was Prince Albert, who was dead. The second, was a professor who had become insane. The third, was Palmerston himself, who had forgotten it.

One of the few areas of consensus in the debate over Maine school funding is that the number of human beings who comprehend it are almost as elusive. Even though or perhaps because our 21st century contemporaries can call upon the assistance of computers, the intricacies of the funding formula are within the grasp of only a few public policy makers.

Though it is challenging for anyone to master all elements of the funding programs, here is a quick rundown of some of the major categories:

Support Costs: The state pays a per student amount for various categories of costs. For example:

Pre-K-8th Grade High School
Operations and Maintenance: $1,122 $1,333
Supplies and Equipment: $384 $530

The historically most volatile category, administration costs, are now $47 per student Pre-K through 12 in most places. This had been slated under the LePage Administration to be phased down to zero but has now bottomed out at that figure. It had been $233 a couple of years ago.

Special Program Costs:- Though overall a lower cost, certain specific programs are funded at a much higher figure, often close to 100 percent. These can include in many cases some transportation, some early childhood as well as some career and technical (“vocational education”) costs. Special education used to be at 100 percent but has been cut back in recent years in order to avoid over-identification within the districts. It is figured at about 45 percent today.

Debt Service:- When Benjamin Franklin recited that there are only two things inevitable in life, death and taxes, he left this one out. The theory here is that certain state-approved projects, typically new buildings, should be reimbursed at nearly 100 percent. The waiting list of course is long for such funds and some districts particularly during the last recession decided to bypass the notion of state funding and borrow the money on their own rather than wait for payments from the state. Those that wait also often appropriate additional local funds and, as in the case of Farmington-Wilton’s Mt. Blue High School project a few years ago, collaborated with a prominent local philanthropist and other private sources to provide further funding.

Teacher Pension Costs:- This is one of the biggest shifts in recent years, a signature proposal of the LePage administration. Historically until about five years ago the state paid 100 percent of such expenses but today it is roughly shared approximately 50 percent state-local. The property tax rich districts of the state get less of that percentage. The underlying impetus for the change was that such places as Phillips and Ashland should not be paying the teacher retirement pensions of Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth.

Turning away from the funding formula, a few further thoughts at this back to school moment:

In recent, years, due to the attention given to adult education programs, our systems have become more hospitable to non-traditional students. While the “Greatest Generation” in the post-World War II era saw our colleges filled with older constituents this trend has in more recent years been accompanied by a similar change closer to the public school level. It has been inspiring to see a few more adults take a page from the book of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas, who a few years ago in response to a wager placed with him by some of his senior staff people returned to high school to complete his secondary education. Such people impart to students and policy makers alike an enhanced vision of both schooling and school funding.

“Education makes the people easily to govern but impossible to enslave.” – Lord High Chancellor Henry Peter Brougham (1778-1868), a British statesman who played a major role in enacting the 1832 Reform Act in 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.

“It is in fact a part of the function of education to help us escape not from our own time – for we are bound by that – but from the intellectual and emotional limitations of our time.”– T.S. Elliot, American and British poet and essayist (1888-1965).

Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine; he can be reached by e-mail pmills@myfairpoint.net

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