"55% of what" and a failed joke: an Ed Committee metacommentary

Tuesday, by far the most exerted discussion followed the subject of Senator Trahan's bill which objects the incremental inflation of the components of what the state counts as General Purpose Aid to Schools which is essentially the numerator that is used to measure both the state's absolute dollar contribution toward local education and its relative progress toward meeting the 55% funding level mandated by LD 1.

As is her talent, the Commissioner doggedly defended the broader practice, arguing that while many of the miscellaneous indeed were not distributed as local aid, they diffused expenses that otherwise would be borne locally.

But the Committee also held its ground on this, objecting to the characterization of these transfers as evidence of increased state support to local education, when local administrative units have no discretion over how the money is raised or spent.

As most readers here already understand, this whole discussion rises and falls on the ongoing unresolved question that is simply summarized as "55% of what?"

The Education Committee seems determined to wrest some authority back over that particular question.

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These days, it's nearly impossible for any policy discussion in the Committee Room not to bump at some point up against the issue of the fairness of EPS as a funding measure.

Several of today's bills, particularly LD 1283 and LD 1414, respond in some way to the service EPS has been inverted into as a "spending cap" requiring separate override at secret ballot referendum, a pantomime that nearly nine out of ten school districts are now by law forced through at least once every budget season.

As Speaker Pingree noted in her testimony on Monday introducing LD 1414, the gap between EPS level threshold spending and the actual extensive local expectations of school programming in many areas has grown to the point that some districts, notably those with smaller populations, overspend EPS by margins of 25% to 100%.

The gap in these districts is so large, and cuts that would be required to spend at EPS level would be so draconian, that the override vote in these towns now serves primarily to remind voters only of how absurdly out-of-touch Augusta's intentions are in relation to school spending and how crudely ineffective the tools are that the state employs.

Senator Weston's bill, LD 1283, seeks both to streamline the budget validation referendum and also to solidify its requirement. Because of this latter aspect -- the bill's removing the option presently in law that allows local communities to discontinue the validation referendum after three years -- I offered testimony in opposition, finding myself happily positioned on this issue on the same side of the aisle as the Commissioner.

Inexperienced at public hearing testimony, at the last moment I thought I'd risk some humor. The previous proponent, Stephen Bowen, had drawn some pointed objections from Representatives Finch and Johnson to the application of EPS in the spending override language when 88% of districts exceed it. So, I prefaced my testimony saying that, while I hoped to step around all the touchy issues of policy associated with the validation referendum, I did want to make it clear that we support principles of transparency, empowering and informing voters.

"We endorse this 100%," I said. "And we would endorse it at least 120% -- if it were to remain legal to do so."

Hopeful as any amateur, I paused here two beats for the laughter from the Committee. But none came, even from the Commissioner, proof that no one finds EPS spending jokes funny anymore -- or, possibly, that my vocation isn't stand-up.

Failed Jokes

Brian,
Well you might not be in line to take over for Jay Leno, but you are still one of the best in trying to understand our convoluted educational system. Keep up the good work!