BY STEVE MISTLER

State House Bureau

State lawmakers had a mixed reaction Wednesday to an ongoing independent review of the state’s school funding formula, including suggestions that would affect student-teacher ratios, teacher pay and the number of school administrators.

Lawmakers had little to say about a recommendation to beef up a state program designed to offer property tax relief to low income residents in school districts with high property values.

That’s because the Legislature eliminated the program while enacting the state’s current two-year budget.

The California-based consultant Picus & Associates was commissioned by the Legislature last year, part of a $450,000 independent review of the state’s education funding formula often criticized for perceived flaws and inequity. Picus presented its most recent findings to the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee Wednesday.

Among the study’s recommendations is strengthening the state’s “circuit breaker” program to help offset the formula’s burden on low income residents living in school districts with high property values. Others included recalibrating the Essential Programs and Services funding model, or EPS, with an “evidence-based” model that assigns state funding based on student performance.

Several committee members were critical of the approach and its potential impacts on student-teacher ratios and school administrators.

Some lawmakers said the evidence-based model was too reliant on standardized test scores.

Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, said the model was flawed because standardized tests aren’t an accurate indicator of student achievement.

Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, said she was unimpressed with some of the analysis, saying it was was colored by the consultants’ preference for the evidence-based model.

“It’s like you’re the judge in the cake-baking contest and you’ve come up with your own recipe that you think is the best,” Kornfield said.

Lawmakers were receptive to other recommendations, but worried about the associated costs.

Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, said that EPS was supposed to represent the minimum state education funding.

“This is something other than minimum,” Johnson said.

Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said some of the recommendations appeared designed to “spend more money on education, but not actually improve results.”

Lawmakers said their hands were tied when Lawrence Picus, the principal partner at Picus & Associates, suggested strengthening the state’s circuit breaker program.

Maine is one of more than 40 states that uses property valuation to calculate school funding. Districts with higher property values often receive less state aid, a model that critics say doesn’t always reflect low-income individuals’ ability to pay property taxes if a town raises taxes to pay for school funding. It can also lead to inadequate school funding if voters concerned with the tax burden reject school budgets at the ballot box.

Picus & Associates suggested providing direct property tax relief to low- or fixed-income residents as one way to alleviate the problem. Maine had two such programs, a homestead exemption that subtracts $10,000 from the assessed value of a Mainer’s home for the purpose of assessing property taxes and the circuit breaker, which provided up to a $1,600 credit to Mainers whose property taxes exceeded 4 percent of their total household income and household incomes that don’t exceed $64,950 for a single resident or $86,600 for a household.

In fiscal year 2012, circuit breaker had about 89,000 recipients. The average yearly refund was $479 in 2011, according to Maine Revenue Services.

Lawmakers repealed and replaced the program last session, a response to Gov. Paul LePage’s proposal to limit circuit breaker to people aged 65 or older and veterans, and to generate additional revenue to balance the biennial budget.

The Legislature settled on a property tax fairness credit that provides less relief than circuit breaker. It provides qualifying Mainers up to a $300 a year credit, or $400 if they are over age 70.

Lawmakers argued that the fairness credit provided more relief than LePage’s proposal.

The governor’s proposal and the Legislature’s budget move are at odds with one of the recommendations suggested by Picus to address the imbalance resulting from the state’s current school funding formula, the Essential Programs and Services, or EPS.

The model, adopted in 2004, is largely calculated on prescribed staff-to-pupil ratios, geographic factors and an assessment of student population. Property values determine how much each community should contribute to the EPS amount and the state pays for the rest.

Picus & Associates was commissioned by the Legislature last year to review the system and suggest changes. The firm has done similar assessments in other states.

Earlier this year the firm reported that Maine’s per pupil expenditures for K-12 education were among the highest in the United States, but low when compared to the rest of New England.

It also found that while school funding grew in recent years, student performance has been relatively flat. Test scores compared to the rest of the country are relatively strong, the report found, but about average in comparison with the other states in New England.

According to recent U.S. Census Data, from 1999-2000 to 2009-2010 state and local revenue for public K-12 education in Maine grew from $1.62 billion to $2.35 billion, an increase of just over $728.6 million or 45 percent. During the same time period,state and local revenue for K-12 education in all 50 states increased by 49.4 percent.

Between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 Maine’s per pupil expenditures grew from $7,595 to

$12,259 an increase of 61.4 percent. Average per pupil expenditures on a national level

increased from $6,836 to $10,600, a 55.1 percent increase during this same time period.

Wednesday’s review also touched on teacher salaries, teacher-student ratios and recommended administrators per district.

Picus recommended one principal per 450 students in elementary and middle schools and one principal per 600 high school students. The state’s EPS formula prescribes one principal per 305 students in elementary and middle school and one per 315 students in high school.

LePage has often criticized the education system for being too top-heavy. Democrats often disagree.

Hubbell said that while it was “fashionable to bash” administration levels in school districts, strong administrators can determine whether a district is successful.

Lawmakers will continue evaluating the study this year and potentially adopt some of its recommendations.

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