Editorial: Looking for fairness

Maine’s school funding formula, though flawed, is generally regarded as the best method for determining equitable distribution of state support. The method uses property valuation to determine a community’s wealth. Fair enough, one might say. The higher the valuation, the reasoning goes, the better the likelihood that a community can fund education through local property taxes.

That formula works in York. According to the Portland Press Herald, the state sends York only 7 percent of what it takes to fund essential programs and services because the local property valuation indicates the town is able to afford the rest. York is what is known as a “minimum receiver.” We have a few such towns in Hancock County.

Lewiston, on the other hand, is not so well off. The state picks up more than 70 percent of Lewiston’s school spending. Again, one might say that sounds fair.

According to the Press Herald, the calculation goes off the rails with towns such as Jonesport in Washington County, which receives about 11 percent of what it needs because it has an abundance of expensive waterfront property. Jonesport is a classic instance of property valuation being an unreliable indication of individual taxpayers’ wealth. Jonesport should not be a minimum receiver.

This is old news for state education officials and town school boards. Both have attempted to address the unfairness. But attempts to find the right balance have come to naught. With a set amount of school funding in the state budget every year, any attempt to send more funding to some schools and less to others is guaranteed to cause a fight.

Or not. The town manager of Fayette, a small (pop. 1,140) lakeside community in Kennebec County that also is a minimum receiver is promoting an initiative called “Raise the Floor.” Fayette and other under-funded towns are working on legislation that would set the minimum amount of state funding at 15 percent of the cost of essential programs and services. This would require $15 million in new funding — separate from the set allocation, so nothing is taken away from other schools and that potential fight, at least, is avoided.

The fight, if there is one, would likely break out in Augusta. The proposal to create a separate, $15-million pot might not fly in the legislature. Raise the Floor will be competing not only for additional school funds but it will be doing so as lawmakers take on a fresh crop of funding challenges, Medicaid expansion among them.

But the effort to call attention to a funding formula that shortchanges many towns and — more importantly — the students in those towns is worthwhile. If towns such as Fayette and Jonesport keep the pressure up, a wiser and more reasonable distribution of support could be the result.

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