Voters in School Administrative District 49 last week rejected the 2015-16 budget proposal, sending board members back to make further cuts in the $25.9 million spending plan.

What happened next is far too common throughout Maine, where school districts struggle year after year to limit tax increases while still offering an adequate education. It’s a situation that has generated a lot of debate but little progress. And the delay is slowly killing both school districts and taxpayers.

Following the vote in Fairfield-based SAD 49, the school board chairman said that extracurricular activities, including school sports, would be cut before teaching positions, which already have been the target of budget cuts multiple times in the last 10 years.

But faced with a similar situation a year ago, the board tried to eliminate Lawrence High School’s small, but expensive, hockey program. The reaction from parents was swift and loud, and the hockey program stayed.

The same thing has happened this year, with residents arguing that school sports have value, and board members responding that there is little else to cut.

It’s a familiar story. Similar discussions took place this year in Regional School Unit 18, in the Oakland area, and in RSU 13, in the Rockland area, just to name a couple.


Each year at this time, the aspirations that school districts have for the education they provide run up against the cold, hard reality of steadily rising costs, additional mandates and, increasingly, diminished state aid.

And each year, budgets inch upward.

That’s the right decision for communities that want to prepare their children for the future, and that need to offer a good school system to attract new residents and businesses.

But for Mainers on a fixed income, or who haven’t seen a real raise in a while, those increases add up.

So in many school districts, we see a situation where even the relatively small spending increases necessary to simply maintain a school system, never mind grow and improve it, are placing a heavy burden on property taxpayers.

That’s unsustainable, and unless changes are made, these districts are going to die a death of a thousand cuts. Maine students, and the state’s future, will suffer.


SAD 49, for instance, has increased its budget, on average, less than 3 percent each year since 2009.

Driving the budget increases have been rising health care costs and contracted wage increases. Declining state aid and increases in the local assessments and retirement costs have increased the amount the must be raised through property taxes.

To control costs, the district has eliminated about 14 percent of its staff — while losing about 7 percent of its enrollment — and delayed maintenance projects that undoubtedly will cost more when they inevitably must be done.

Many other school districts have seen the same thing happen: educational offerings shrink, buildings deteriorate, technology falls behind, and residents still see a tax increase.

That’s a slow-motion car wreck, occurring over the course of more than a decade now. If nothing is done, it won’t end well.

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