State aid to schools keeps falling

Posted July 30, 2009, at 10:49 p.m.

As elected leaders of the Maine School Boards Association and Maine School Superintendents Association, we want to respond to the editorial The Cutting Continues (BDN, July 25), which appeared to place blame on schools for overruns in the state budget.

We know schools are an easy target, since K-12 education in Maine, coupled with Health and Human Services, constitutes the lion’s share of expenditures paid for by the state’s general fund, but this is also true nationwide.

On average, 34 percent of state general funds in this country are spent on K-12 education, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers. Maine will spend about 32 percent of its general fund on K-12 in the current fiscal year and that is projected to drop to below 31 percent next year, when funding for schools will be cut by at least $54 million.

Districts already are cutting programs, staff and, in some cases, closing schools, in anticipation that the economy will be slow to recover.

As education policymakers and administrators, we will work with the Legislature to identify those areas that save money without jeopardizing the quality of education — a walk on a fine line that grows ever more difficult as promised resources for schools dry up.

While the state increased funding for K-12 education in 2005 after a statewide referendum requiring it to pay 55 percent of the costs, that goal has never been met and the percent is projected to drop to 45 percent state-share by fiscal year 2011.

Pressure is now being put on schools not to exceed the amount determined by the Essential Programs and Services funding formula, which became law along with the 55 percent funding target. The irony is the EPS formula was developed to make sure districts were spending enough on education, not to be used as a spending cap.

Even the creators of the formula say EPS was never designed to pay for a comprehensive school program. Schools are expected to exceed EPS if they ever hope to engage all kids since many programs aren’t covered, from Advanced Placement courses to school sports. EPS doesn’t even help pay for the school lunch program.

The editorial also quoted legislators saying school boards and superintendents were uncooperative and suspicious of the Legislature.

The reality is we have reason to be cautious.

Not only has the state never achieved 55 percent funding, it is now employing or contemplating ways to inflate the percentage without actually benefiting schools, and shifting more of the burden onto local property taxpayers.

In the legislative session that just ended, two amendments were put into the budget that could potentially shift the burden for a portion of teacher retirement and teacher health benefits onto communities. The retirement shift alone could mean communities would have to pick up $60 million or more of the costs currently being paid for by the state.

The Appropriations Committee will consider that shift as part of its ongoing deliberations to help fill the growing budget hole.

Over the last several years, the state also has started paying for programs with General Purpose Aid for local schools instead of using general funds, making less money available for local districts. Today an estimated $20 million annually comes out of GPA to pay for nonlocal school aid, including $5.9 million for the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, $2 million for Maine School of Science and Mathematics, $1.6 million for the Jobs for Maine Graduates program and the salary for 26 state employees, most of whom work in the Department of Education in Augusta.

While the state is using the numbers to try and make it look like it is keeping its promise to increase aid to education, the reality is aid is dropping.

Our job as school policy-makers and administrators is to make sure we are fulfilling the state’s obligation to provide the best public education we can afford to all our children, with the consent of local voters, who must approve all school budgets at the ballot box. We are here to do what it takes to honor that commitment in these tough economic times.

Erica Kimball, a school board member from SAD 22 in Hampden, is president of the Maine School Boards Association. Shannon Welsh, superintendent of RSU 5, is president of the Maine School Superintendents Association.

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