School funding formula deserves to be looked at sans the rhetoric and bombast

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Pulitzer Prize winning writer and journalist Murray Kempton once said editorial writers "are people who ride down out of the hills after battle and shoot the wounded."

Well, if the late Mr. Kempton is looking down from above he need not worry about that today.

You see while everyone in Lebanon and North Berwick - and a few in Berwick, too - are bringing out the long knives and piling on Lebanon Selectmen Chair Chip Harlow for allowing Berwick selectmen to come for what he thought was an informational meet and greet on school funding, we say what he did was perfectly innocent.

And the frank and open discussion that the three towns should be having about the MSAD 60 school funding formula - and whether it's fair and equitable - is one that deserves to be had.

On Thursday we learned from state rep Beth O'Connor, R-Berwick, North Berwick, that North Berwick pays $3,000 more per student than Berwick and Lebanon.

And we learned from Berwick selectmen on Jan. 25 that they think a different funding formula used widely across Maine would result in a $500,000 windfall for their town and $330,000 for Lebanon.

Maybe when Lebanon selectmen go to meet with their North Berwick counterparts next month we'll all learn a lot more.

So what's the big elephant in the room that we all should know more about?

The funding formula that determines what each town pays per student and how much state aid they receive for the number of students who live in their town.

The original agreement between the three towns was made in the late '90s, and comprises a funding formula that is 50 percent based on cumulative town valuation and 50 percent on town student numbers.

So imagine you had three households who live on a private road trying to decide how to equitably divide the cost of maintaining their road. One is an elderly couple with no children, one is a married couple with one child and the other is a house turned into a dorm for young people who attend a nearby college.

So how do you equitably determine the formula? Well, you might use house valuation, number of cars, number of residents on the road and then figure a per capita cost. There's all kinds of ways you can slice and dice numbers.

So that's what Lebanon, Berwick and North Berwick did in the late '90s.

Well, it's 20 years later for gosh sakes. Don't you think it's time for a discussion? Is the formula sacrosanct? Kept in a hidden crypt guarded by the illuminati?

Those who came down the hill to shoot the wounded on Thursday were not journalists; they were politicians, wringing their hands, angst-ridden, weeping, looking for blood.

It was really quite pathetic.

And this was all after Harlow read a five-minute mea culpa.

So after he reads the mea culpa does anyone accept his apology?

Not exactly, they've got a wounded one here. Time to bring out the daggers, right?

And make no mistake about it. Harlow could've asked Lebanon's other selectmen to read letters of apology, too, but he didn't. He took the bullet.

Why? Because as he said, he's the one who had been contacted by Berwick, who wanted to get Lebanon's thoughts on Berwick's plan to try to get a town vote for a funding formula change that would put more money back in Berwick coffers at the expense of North Berwick.

Now we don't even begin to pretend to understand all of the vagaries and ramifications of doing what Berwick appears to be moving toward.

According to most at Thursday's meeting, we're all going to hell in a handbasket.

But 20 years? Remember the road with the three houses?

Well, circumstances change over time at MSAD 60, too. Revaluations, numbers of students, town finances and fiscal health or lack thereof.

Education takes up to like 75 percent of property tax revenue.

We say let's peel back the funding formula and take a hard, inquiring look. Maybe the three towns can work together like they have for two decades.

But let's take the blinders off and tone down the rhetoric.

As it is now, it's not helpful for Berwick Selectman Joshua Plante to be disparaging Lebanon like he did on Tuesday when he said, "They have an incredibly poorly run government."

Funny we seem to remember it wasn't too long ago that three Berwick selectmen from his town were recalled over ethics concerns.

We hope Lebanon selectmen don't get down on their knees on March 6 and beg forgiveness like some have said they should. They've done nothing wrong. They have nothing to be ashamed of. We're glad our selectmen are looking out for our dime.

Maybe it's time for the three towns to re-evaluate who pays how much. I don't believe the formula wasn't designed to run in perpetuity.

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