Starting this fall, the state will no longer give Maine school systems money to help pay their first-year teachers a state-mandated $30,000 a year. However, schools must still pay that minimum salary.
The law change, approved by the Legislature in February, is expected to save the state about $300,000 a year. It will cost some school systems anywhere between a few dollars and several thousand dollars.
Maine created the minimum teacher salary in 2006. At the time, the average first-year teacher in Maine made about $27,000 a year. The American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teacher unions in the country, ranked that salary 45th in the nation and the lowest in New England.
Supporters of the minimum salary hoped raises would make it easier to attract and retain teachers, especially in rural Maine.
For the 2006-07 school year, the state required schools to pay new teachers at least $27,000. The following year that was increased to $30,000, where it would stay.
“But of course (school) districts said, and understandably so, ‘We can’t just jump to $30,000 overnight. That has a big impact,'” Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said.
As part of the law, the state subsidized the higher wages, paying school systems the difference between what their teacher contracts called for and what the state required.
In 2007-08, when the minimum salary was increased to $30,000, the state paid out $1.8 million in subsidies. As teacher salaries have increased over the years, fewer school systems had pay so low that they needed state help. Last year, Maine paid out less than $300,000.
“It was always intended to be a temporary measure until salaries caught up and until the districts were able to adjust for it, not to be a permanent supplement,” Connerty-Marin said. “The time has come.”
The state subsidized 37 school districts last year. The lowest subsidy was $10.70 paid to the East Machias School Department. The biggest subsidy was just over $31,000 paid to RSU 67 in Lincoln.
Most school systems in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties did not receive state help because they paid their teachers $30,000 or more. Last year, SAD 17 in Oxford got just over $27,400 in subsidy; Auburn schools got about $1,800, and RSU 16 in Poland got $474.
Cathy Fanjoy Coffey, business manager for SAD 17, said the district had been paying new teachers $27,000 to $28,000 a year and getting a subsidy of $2,000 to $3,000 per person to bump up that salary. But the Oxford Hills School District just signed a new teacher contract that brought the lowest salaries to $30,600, so it wouldn’t have been eligible for any subsidy this year, even if the law had remained unchanged.
“The subsidy has bought us some time in order to get our salaries up,” she said.
Auburn pays its new teachers about $29,700. With three new teachers hired for the fall, it would have gotten about $900 in subsidy from the state.
Superintendent Katy Grondin said her school system budgets every year for $30,000 per new teacher because that’s the salary required by law and she didn’t want to take it for granted that the state would continue to subsidize. She wasn’t surprised when the subsidy was cut this year.
“You never can count on anything, so we did budget and plan for $30,000. If it’s in the law, you have to do it,” Grondin said.
The subsidy, she said, has been helpful in the past. Now Auburn doesn’t need that help so much.
“The state’s intent was not to do it from here on out,” Grondin said. “The intent was to help support school districts to get to the $30,000 mark. We have gotten close to it.”