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Special committee looking for school funding compromise – June 14, 2017

A special bipartisan committee created to break the gridlock over how to fund public education in the biennial budget met today and discussed what policy changes legislators want in return for increases in state aid to schools that could range between $100 million to $320 million over the next two years.

One of those changes is likely to involve cuts in funding for system administration since Gov. LePage eliminated all funding for system administration in his budget proposal. A proposal discussed at today’s meeting would reduce funding and ultimately tie it to participation in regional cooperatives.

The committee, officially known as the committee of conference, is made up of Senate President Michael Thibodeau, House Speaker Sara Gideon and Appropriations Committee members, Sen. Catherine Breen, D-Cumberland, Sen. Roger Katz, R-Kennebec, Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor, and Rep. Tom Winsor, R-Norway.

The committee was created after the Appropriations Committee produced four different recommendations representing the positions of the Senate and House Democrats, Senate Republicans, House Republicans and one none of the above.

The key point of disagreement is Democrats want to increase education funding through a 3 percent tax on higher-income earners passed as part of the Question 2 referendum in November. The referendum specifically called for using the new tax to meet the state’s obligation to fund 55 percent of public education. Republicans want that tax repealed and propose funding education through existing revenues. They say the proposed tax on income greater than $200,000 would make it harder to attract businesses and higher-paid professionals to the state and penalize those who are here.

The deadline to find a compromise is fast approaching if the Legislature wants to avoid a government shutdown similar to the last one in 1991 that went on for 18 days.

Deliberations are expected to go on for the next several days, where money and policy issues will be negotiated.

Funding offers include:

  • Democrats have proposed increasing state aid to education by roughly $120 million in school year 2017-2018 and by $200 million in 2018-2019. Also key for Democrats is finding a sustainable funding source for schools going forward if Question 2 is repealed.
  • Senate Republicans have proposed an increase of roughly $17 million in 2017-2018 and $111 million in 2018-2019. Their funding source right now is existing revenues.
  • House Republicans have proposed $30 million in funding.

On policy issues, Education Committee Chairman Brian Langley, R-Hancock, and Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, who has served on the Education Committee and is now on Appropriations, presented a policy plan designed to be a compromise between the two parties and the governor’s office. It includes:

  • No longer deducting Title I funding from school district allocations – a proposal also included in the governor’s budget.
  • Increasing the weight for economically disadvantaged children from 15 to 20 percent, which would cost an additional $27 million over current funding, and specifying that funding is targeted. That means districts would have to account for and show how the money was spent to help economically disadvantaged students.
  • Eliminating the declining enrollment adjustment for districts losing students, which is currently worth $18 million. That $18 million plus an upfront reduction in system administration funding would pay for the economically disadvantaged increase. (See below).  This cut also is included in the governor’s budget.
  • Cutting the per-pupil amount for system administration in 2017-2018 from $235 per student to $135.
  • After the initial cut, the rate would go to $138 per student in 2018-2019, but $46 of that amount must be used for participation in regional cooperatives. In 2019-2020, the rate would go to $141, but $94 of that amount must be for regional cooperative participation. In 2020-2021, system administration rates would be determined by the commissioner of education and only school districts that are participating in a regional cooperative would be eligible for funding.

The committee is expected to continue its work throughout the rest of the week. MSMA will keep members informed through updated bulletins.

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