AUGUSTA — Maggie Stokes, an Oakland fifth-grader, told legislators Monday that she’s seeing the effects of stretched budgets in the classroom.

“A few of the plastic chairs we have are broken,” she said. “Others are chipped and damaged, and everyone is careful where they sit so they don’t get hurt.”

Stokes helped set the tone of a legislative hearing on education changes in Gov. Paul LePage’s proposed budget, which featured students telling of rising student-teacher ratios and school administrators lamenting what they have already lost or are planning to cut. A proposed shift of liability for teacher retirement costs from the state to school districts drew the most reaction by students, residents, superintendents and other education advocates who spoke before the Legislature’s Appropriations and Education committees on Monday.

About 70 people signed up to testify, according to the committee clerk, and the afternoon hearing ran into the evening.

The proposed retirement change shifts nearly $29 million of the state’s $201 million teacher retirement liabilities — now paid fully by the state — to districts, which are supported primarily by property taxes. Half of the shift is offset by a $14.5 million increase in general purpose aid.

“The state made a promise decades ago to fund (retirement contributions),” said Lewiston Mayor Robert MacDonald. “Simply put, the state needs to honor its promise to teachers and community.”

But according to Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin, “The choices are: do the retirement shift, find the $14.5 million some other way,” or convince the Legislature to look outside the department for cuts.

LePage’s budget document proposes essentially flat-funding general purpose aid to Maine schools at approximately $895 million in each of the next two years. That would mean keeping education funding at the level reached earlier this year after a LePage-proposed curtailment order reduced the level by $12.6 million.

At the same time, the LePage proposal suspends revenue-sharing to municipalities, which would cost communities just under $200 million over the two-year period.

All told, Sanford Superintendent David Theoharides said Monday, changes in LePage’s budget could add up to about a $1 million hit against his York County school district.

“I anticipate I will have to cut 25 teaching and staff positions, significantly reduce our athletic program, eliminate technology purchases for our high school and curtail all of our after-school busing,” he said.

Theoharides was among the education advocates who told lawmakers that the retirement change and other proposals amount to a large cost shift to municipal taxpayers.

Legislative Republicans and the governor’s office have defended the proposals, saying they ask cities and towns to exert local control to find efficiencies.

The Maine Department of Education released estimates Monday of how each school district would be affected by the retirement changes. The impact on individual districts is based on municipalities’ mill rates, or the amount of tax paid per dollar of assessed property value, so that districts that need more support get it, according to the department.

Connerty-Marin said the current system that has the state bearing all retirement costs amounts to taking money from the poor to give to the rich.

The state argues that districts that would receive no state help with the cost of retirement contributions under LePage’s plan — such as the Wells-Ogunquit Community School District in York County — can afford to bear the cost more than RSU 68, serving four towns in rural Piscataquis County, which the state will still pay for entirely under the plan.

“Because the state currently funds these retirement costs for every school district in Maine regardless of their local funding capacity, it was felt that (sharing the cost) and providing state support through the funding formula is a fairer way of achieving needed savings,” said Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen at the hearing.

In many cases, the proposed cost shift to local taxpayers would be less pronounced than expected, based on the data released Monday.

The city of Portland, for example, has been planning to lose more than $1 million in state-funded retirement contributions, but the state figures say the city would pay approximately $222,000, or 16 percent of the retirement costs, while the state would pay the rest.

At a press conference on Monday before the hearing, Dick Durost, executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, said shifting retirement costs to the local schools, combined with the end of revenue-sharing to local communities, puts local taxpayers “in a no-win situation” of either raising taxes to make up those funds or cutting education programs.

“I don’t think local taxpayers want to do this,” Durost said.

In that vein, the conversation at the hearing also turned to overarching budget philosophies.

Virgel Hammonds, superintendent of RSU 2 in Hallowell, Farmingdale, Monmouth, Dresden and Richmond, presented lawmakers with budgeting alternatives to the education cuts.

He suggested increasing Maine’s lodging tax, levying a high tax on those making over $1 million, delaying a LePage-proposed $100 million virtual rebuilding of the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, and repealing a $400 million package of tax cuts enacted in the last Legislature.

On tax cuts, LePage and Republicans are unlikely to budge. It was a big political victory for the party in its two years in the majority. And GOP lawmakers have defended the package against similar attacks from Democrats, saying the cuts, which took effect in January, haven’t had time to help Maine’s economy and are promoting economic growth.

However, one of Hammonds’ students, Kurt Thiele, a senior at Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, said it’s one of many misplaced priorities.

“The futures of thousands of students are now put into jeopardy because the governor and a few legislative leaders thought it was a good idea to push through a package of income tax cuts without an idea to actually pay for this,” he said.

Michael Shepherd — 370-7652
mshepherd@mainetoday.com
Twitter: @mikeshepherdme