Thursday, January 24, 2013

Briefly attended a breakfast meeting with representatives from Maine’s independent schools – John Bapst, George Stevens, Washington Academy, etc.  The academies are as uneasy about their share of public money as public schools this season.

During the morning House session, we referred several more bills to the Education Committee, including one which seeks to require schools to offer firearms training.

Maine’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts hosted a confab In the Hall of Flags and I got to speak briefly with Megan Facciolo, the District Manager for Hancock County’s SWCD, an organization for which I formerly was an associate supervisor.

At lunch, I sat in with the ‘Measures of Growth’ caucus which advocates for data-driven legislative decision making based upon the Maine Economic Growth Council’s annual report ‘Measures of Growth in Focus.’  Areas of particular concern are research and development expenditures, fourth grade reading scores, cost of health care, transportation infrastructure, and wellness and prevention.

Afternoon, in Committee, we heard an in-depth presentation from Jim Rier, Department of Education’s Finance Director, on the mechanisms underlying the Essential Programs and Services ‘adequacy’ model and Maine’s school funding formula. We also reviewed a spreadsheet that outlined by school district, the percent reductions of school budgets as a consequence of the budget curtailment – which were consistently in the range of 0.5% to 1%.  Two items I noted from Mr RIer’s presentation were: 1) that cushioning the fixed costs of our schools against Maine’s declining student enrollments currently pads EPS by about $25 million. And 2) 46% of Maine students qualify for free or reduced lunch, a substantive indicator of poverty.

Following that, the Committee had more discussion with Commissioner Bowen about the education-related pieces of the supplemental budget.  Committee members expressed concern about the transfer of dedicated $14 million in casino revenue from education to the General Fund, noting that the casino approval last session was arguably a compromise based upon the commitment of that dedicated revenue.  I think that good point is generally understood but the fact remains that if that unallocated money were preserved for GPA in future years, then the legislature will be obligated to cut $14 million elsewhere in the current budget, a process that will be painful enough already.

As Rier and Bowen explain it, there are really two different parts of the supplemental budget that touch upon the substance of the curtailment as it relates to education.  First there is the $12.6 million reduction in General Purpose Aid to education.  That’s essentially the cost to Maine schools as education’s share of the $35.5 million curtailment.  Second there is the transfer of $14.1 million in unallocated money from casino revenue to the General Fund which is probably best understood in the larger context of filling the larger budget hole which is exacerbated by conditions outside of education.

Committee members also expressed concern that limiting eligibility for disabled five-year-olds to receive services under CDS would increase costs to local schools, whether these kids’ needs were met either directly through school kindergarten programs or contracted elsewhere.  The Commissioner argues that the total cost of services may not necessarily be increased and that, overall, there can be savings from efficeincy and more comprehensive oversight.

I asked the Commissioner some more about the language modifying the Fund for Efficeint Delivery of Educational Services, which seems not only to provide incentives for collaboration and consolidation but also to push a bit further towards a certain vision for these consolidations centered on career and technical education (a particular interest of the Governor’s) perhaps making it more difficult for other collaborative or consolidated models.

Given the climate of curtailment, Committee members also seemed reluctant to provide additional support for the private academies by increasing their ‘Insured Value Factor’ which is meant to support the capital costs of their facilities.

Friday afternoon, all these components of the supplemental budget will be the subject of public hearings in Appropriations.

Finally, late afternoon, I sat in on another Appropriations public hearing on the Governor’s proposal to eliminate the cost of living increase for retired teachers.  The hearing was well-attended  and lasted for nearly three hours as many retired teachers shared their stories of hardship in the face of what they took to be a betrayal of an economic and social contract.