AUGUSTA — A bill sponsored by Sen. David Trahan (R-Lincoln County) would require the Department of Education to use a budgeting process that doesn’t, as Trahan put it, “mislead the public” about state funding for schools.
At issue is the essential programs and services formula, which defines what the state says public education should include and what it should cost. Trahan said the department has been moving programs and positions into the formula to inflate how much it can claim the state is paying for education. Jim Rier, director of finance and operations for the Maine Department of Education, said those programs have been added to the formula — in most cases by the Legislature — because they directly benefit K-12 education and therefore belong there.
A vote of the Maine people in 2004 demanded that the state pay 55 percent of all K-12 education costs, a funding level that has not been attained. By moving more programs into the EPS formula, the state inflates its progress toward 55 percent funding while forcing local communities to pick up 45 percent of the cost of new initiatives, said Trahan.
“In spite of what the allegations are, the EPS formula is meant to define the cost of K-12 education statewide,” said Rier. “When a new initiative comes along, is that something that should be accounted for in a separate silo? I would argue no.”
Trahan’s bill proposes to limit the use of general purpose aid — the money that funds the EPS formula — to programs that directly benefit public schools.
One program Rier said was moved from the general fund to general purpose aid is the state’s laptop computer program, which began under Governor Angus King’s administration.
“That one fits what is being alleged,” said Rier. “It’s something that the general fund previously funded. Now we’re including it in the cost of K-12 education.”
Another disputed area involves 23 employees in the Department of Education and three in the Department of Corrections who have been moved into the EPS formula.
“The issue is not whether or not they should be there, but rather whether they should in funded in GPA,” said Geoff Herman, director of state and federal relations for the Maine Municipal Association.
“Our concern is these new obligations on the local property taxpayer have not been fully reviewed,” said Eileen King, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association.
Trahan said he expects “An Act to Limit the Scope of Miscellaneous Costs Within the General Purpose Aid to Local Schools Appropriation,” to begin the legislative process within a week or two.