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Maine Governor Signs School-Aid Bill

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After negotiating with state lawmakers for months, Gov. Angus King of Maine has signed into law a new school-funding formula designed to distribute money more fairly between rich and poor areas.

The formula, beginning in fiscal 1997, will for the first time include local income and cost of living as factors in determining a district's ability to finance its schools. For fiscal 1996, which began July 1, equity efforts will continue to focus solely on property wealth, though some money was put aside to help poor districts.

Critics have long charged that income is a more fair way of calculating community wealth, since some farming towns with valuable land are actually poor.

Supporters of the new formula say it will help balance the flow of state money, which in recent years has favored richer systems in southern Maine over poorer northern communities.

But others worry that the potential for some poor districts has been exaggerated.

The formula is part of the two-year state budget adopted in the final hours of a tense legislative session that ended June 30 after a five-day extension.

"The formula was one of the major factors in his signing the bill," said Dennis Bailey, a spokesman for Mr. King, a political independent.

This spring, after prolonged disputes among legislators over proposed changes, the Governor stepped in to lead negotiations. He also called in a professional facilitator.

The lawmakers "could agree in abstract on the formula, but when they saw the printouts, they didn't like it," Mr. Bailey said.

Winners and Losers

Under the new formula, personal income, adjusted for local cost-of-living rates, will count toward determining 15 percent of a community's state aid. Property value will count for 85 percent.

The legislation also sets aside $25,000 for research to compile local cost-of-living rates--a provision intended to pacify critics who argued that the current data are inaccurate.

No final numbers were available last week on winners and losers under the new formula. But some observers estimate that as many as two-thirds of Maine school systems will lose money next year.

"There's still a lot of nervousness about it," said Jim Watkins, the director of management information for the state education department. "But the fact that it's one year away means there is time to look at data and make changes."

Gerald S. Clockedile, the superintendent of the 1,730-student Unity school system in central Maine, said that because legislators convene again in January, there is widespread belief that the formula is not meaningful.

"But others, mostly legislators, say, 'What you see is what you get for the next two years,'" he added.

Suit Not Addressed

Maine will spend $534.3 million on K-12 education in the current fiscal year--a $12 million increase over last year--and $548 million in fiscal 1997. There were 214,000 K-12 students in Maine last year.

The 1996 budget earmarks $2 million for the districts with the lowest property values and $1.5 million for transportation costs, mostly in rural areas.

The new formula does not specifically target the grievances of 83 Maine school systems that recently joined in a lawsuit against the state over 1992 cutbacks in school funding.

In ruling against the school systems last month, the state supreme court rejected their argument that the budget cuts violated their constitutional right to equal educational opportunities.

In fact, some of those same districts could even lose under the new plan.

"It's really kind of strange," Mr. Clockedile said of the new formula. "If your income is near the state average but your cost of living is low, you could lose money."

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