School Superintendent Dean Baker said that for the first time in his career, he sees a new, disturbing trend in public education.

“We’re seeing that we have to provide less choice for students than their parents had,” he said, speaking from his Fairfield office. “We’re looking at contracting more programs for next year.” 

Baker, who works for School Administrative District 49, which includes schools in Albion, Benton, Clinton and Fairfield, is one of several superintendents in central Maine who say Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget will cause an unavoidable worsening of the quality of Maine’s public education.

A big factor in their bleak assessment is a shift of teacher retirement costs from the state government to local districts. 

Preliminary state subsidy figures that the Maine Department of Education released Feb. 22 contained the first specific estimates of the shift.

The move would save the state $28.9 million, according to the department. To soften the blow, the General Purpose Aid amount to schools would be increased by $14.5 million, which would be distributed to individual schools based on their communities’ property valuations.

Deputy Education Commissioner Jim Rier has said that the amounts could change as the overall state budget is adjusted.

The Fairfield-based district would have to pay $304,422 more in retirement costs than it does now.

Regional School Unit 18, which includes schools in Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, would have to pay an additional $402,800 in retirement costs under the plan, according to Superintendent Gary Smith.

“We’re in the fifth year of a very difficult recession,” he said. “I see hurt. Every day we’re dealing with families where people are snapping at you faster. It’s a sign of the times.”

Tightening education budgets in Maine are cutting deeply, according to Eric Haley, superintendent for Alternative Organizational Structure 92, which includes schools in Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow. The added retirement costs for the three municipalities comes to $559,198.

Budget effects

All three superintendents said they already have had to make tough choices in their budgets in the past couple of years, and they expect to make more this year. 

“We’re beyond the point of tinkering with optional services,” Baker said. “We’re now talking about reducing the quality of what we can offer students.” 

Even if districts maintain flat budgets in the face of rising costs, Baker said, the governor’s proposed budget will result in hefty tax increases for local property owners, a problem that a proposed cut in state revenue sharing to municipalities would exacerbate.

“You’re increasing costs on a tax base that can’t grow,” he said. 

Each district has lost teaching and support staff members over the last couple of years.

Baker said that the Fairfield-based district is no longer able to afford to have its buses stop at every house as it goes down the road.

“Those become safety issues,” he said. “We’re now requiring students to walk to more centralized places to board the bus.”

The district also has cut its after-school activities bus, Baker said. 

“We found that, among the poorer families that couldn’t afford a car, they relied on that after-school bus for their students to get help after school or to participate in activities,” he said. “That’s one of the decisions we’ve already made, because that was a desirable service, not one that we absolutely had to have.”

At Winslow Junior High School, Haley said, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics program has been cut, as have foreign language classes. Winslow High School is weighing the $125,000 cost of a popular laptop program against the ability to preserve two teaching positions that might otherwise be cut, he said.

“Because of attrition losses that we haven’t replaced, because of declining budgets, we’re just running a very basic, a very poor program right now,” Haley said. 

In Oakland, Smith said, the school has had to cut bus purchases, defer needed maintenance and sacrifice technology education plans. The current flat budget was achieved only after teachers and administrators volunteered to cut their own pay $225 each.

Solutions 

The superintendents said that while it might be difficult to resolve the larger issue of the state’s budget crisis, they did have some suggestions. 

“I think it’s time — Maine did it before — to add a percent to the sales tax,” Smith said.  

He also suggested using $13 million of casino tax revenue to fund general-purpose aid to schools. Casino taxes originally were earmarked for supplemental education revenue, but it’s unclear where they will end up in the state’s final budget.

Haley agreed with increasing the sales tax, and he said more money could be raised by increasing the lodging tax, which has stood at 7 percent in Maine since 1986.  

“The lodging tax in Florida is 14.5 percent,” Haley said. “Does that stop anybody from going to Florida? One of the things we like to brag about is that we’re a tourism state, but yet we don’t take advantage of it.”

Baker said schools could make do with less money if they operated under fewer state mandates.

“If the state creates a rule that says a local entity, a school district, must do something, then it should pay for it,” he said. “If it wants to leave it to voter choice, then leave it to voter choice.”

Ultimately, Baker said, voters haves to decide whether to fund public education in Maine. Otherwise, he said, the trend toward diminished quality will continue as specialized courses are eliminated and class sizes grow. 

“There will be less ability to have specialized courses to meet a student’s needs or interests, whether that be in physics or French,” he said. “Education will narrow.” 

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
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