BANGOR, Maine — The increasing cost of Maine’s public schools, paired with dropping student numbers, raises the question of whether the state’s education system is sustainable.
From 2005 through 2012, per-pupil spending on education in Maine has gone from $9,356 to $11,063. During that same approximate time period, Maine has lost students, according to data from the Maine Department of Education. Enrollments in K-12 public schools slipped from more than 208,000 in 2002 to just under 185,000 in 2011 and, according to experts and census data, the trend is more pronounced in the northern half of the state.
Simple math shows that if those two data sets continue to move in opposite directions, pressure on education funding in Maine, particularly that which comes from local property taxes, will worsen.
“We have a lot of folks in this audience who say, ‘It’s for the kids, it’s for the kids.’ Gosh, I’m getting tired of hearing that,” Plymouth resident Neal Strong said at a recent meeting about whether the school district in central Maine should borrow money to balance its budget.
He’s not alone in his frustration.
Selectmen, school board members and residents from towns across Maine are voicing concerns that taxpayers can’t be asked to bear ever-larger burdens to pay for schools. This sentiment was increasingly being heard even before LePage proposed a bienniel budget last week that would shift millions of dollars in costs to the local level.
In the Rockland-area RSU 13, for example, school board officials pleaded with local lawmakers earlier this month to find a way to reduce rising pressure on property taxes, which Superintendent Lew Collins called “unsustainable for our district and our communities.”
In the Lincoln-area RSU 67, voters just last week approved a $12.1 million school budget after rejecting it five times over the course of six months.
Earlier this week, voters in Newport-area RSU 19, which includes Plymouth, rejected for a second time a bid by the local school board to borrow money to cover a $2.9 million hole in the budget.
In SAD 17 in the South Paris area, the local tax assessment jumped 6 percent last year and could rise another 11 percent this year if the state budget is approved as is. Late last month, the district’s financial problems came to a head when five members of the school board walked out of a budget meeting with selectmen.
Hal Ferguson, a selectman from Otisfield, which is within SAD 17, put it this way: “It’s becoming a catastrophe for any town to absorb.”
Don Chasse, chairman of the Madawaska Board of Selectmen in northern Maine, said Thursday that taxpayers in his town also have had enough. The town, which just last week managed to pass a school budget after voters rejected it last November and demanded $525,000 in cuts, will have a tough path to a balanced budget for the coming year if it includes increases on property taxes. Aside from state funding cuts, Madawaska is dealing with another revenue hit created when Twin Rivers Paper Co. received a major tax abatement in 2010 which cut the mill’s value for taxes in half. If numbers in the biennial budget proposal hold true, the town could see a $2 million hole in municipal and school funding, much of which could be passed to residents who pay property taxes.
“That would be unbelievable,” said Chasse. “It couldn’t happen here.”
In Boothbay, Town Manager James D. Chaousis said state government is passing along a debate that is more appropriate for the State House than a town hall.
“When taxes go up at the local level, sometimes we don’t always make great decisions on services because of the fear of taxes going up,” he said. “I really think the Legislature is in a better position to make policy decisions.”
And when property-tax payers realize that proposed cuts in the homestead exemption and circuit breaker programs will cost them more, Chaousis expects some level of revolt.
“When they realize that they’ll lose those discounts and their taxes will go up, then the shock will set in,” said Chaousis.
At the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Portland, school funding trends have long been a focus and are exacerbated by the fact that for the first time, natural population growth in Maine began to shrink in 2012, according to CEO J. Scott Moody. That means there are more deaths than births in Maine, which over time will lead to even fewer students in Maine.
“We could freeze education spending tomorrow at current levels and per-pupil spending will still go up simply because there are fewer and fewer students,” said Moody, who cited figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. “This is going to become a real problem in the 57 percent of Maine towns that are losing population, and most of them are in the 2nd Congressional District [eastern and northern Maine].”
While some say the equation can be eased with education reforms that include the introduction of virtual schools and give parents the option of sending their students to whatever school they choose, others say initiatives such as those run the risk of producing worse achievement outcomes for students.
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said cutting costs in response to declining enrollments isn’t as feasible as some suggest.
“In a small school district where you lose a small number of kids, you can’t save money by cutting back on the staff,” she said. “You still have to have teachers in all the grades.”
Kilby-Chesley said that most school budget increases are modest when put into context.
“I can’t deny that the cost of schools are going up,” she said. “The cost of keeping competitive and having the best educators that Maine can in the classroom, those costs go up every year. We need to keep moving forward. We have to keep going because our kids deserve it.”
Between 2004 and 2010, according to Education Department data, combined federal, state and local funding for education has gone from less than $1.8 billion annually to more than $2 billion. State funding for education represents nearly half of the state General Fund budget.
After increasing in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 to about $910 million, state general purpose aid for education will fall to approximately $894 million, not including a shift of teacher retirement costs to the local level, in 2014 and 2015 if the Legislature enacts LePage’s recent funding curtailment and biennial budget proposals.
Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said LePage’s budget proposal as written would shift $342 million in costs to local taxpayers over the next two years unless municipalities and school boards can make up for the budget gaps with cuts.
“The property tax is the only way that municipalities can raise money,” he said. “We really feel like the administration is making a major mistake.”
During last week’s unveiling of LePage’s biennial budget, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen acknowledged that school districts face more tough choices but insisted that the budget includes targeted funding initiatives within general purpose aid that he said will help municipalities fund recent department directives, such as encouraging the regionalization of services, creating a teacher and principal accountability system, developing a standards-based high school diploma and implementing new national education standards known as the Common Core.
“Frankly, I consider myself lucky that we’re flat-funded given the rest of the challenges we’ve been hearing about [elsewhere in the state budget],” said Bowen. “We’ve tried to put some targeted pieces into the budget. We understand the challenges.”
Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, is a former superintendent of Augusta-area schools. She said that most districts in Maine already have gone a long way toward decreasing spending and that the options left aren’t easy or significant enough to solve the problem of education funding.
“Local taxpayers are already overburdened,” she said. “As a matter of state policy, the real solution is not pushing down costs to local taxpayers. I think we should be looking at where are resources are being spent and reprioritizing resources in a way that reflect long-held values of Maine’s citizens.”
Among Brown’s suggestions are funneling money from the state’s liquor contract — which LePage proposed this week should fund a repayment plan for the state’s hospitals, which are owed hundreds of millions of dollars in past payments — or casino revenues to education.
“I think I understand the goals that the governor is trying to achieve,” said Brown. “However, in the times that we’re in, that kind of commitment needs to be made over time. We need to look at the other priorities of state government and education before making that kind of commitment.”
Whatever happens, Kilby-Chesley said she’s confident Maine residents will step up on behalf of public education.
“Mainers and Maine taxpayers recognize the value of public education,” she said. “They want the best for their kids and grandkids. I believe that the Legislature will look at what’s best for public schools and that there’s an excellent possibility that things will change before the session ends.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the property tax assessment for towns within School Administrative District 17 has risen 17 percent in the past two years. According to Superintendent Richard Colpitts, the rise in the local tax assessment was 6 percent in this fiscal year and would be 11 percent next year if the district’s revenue picture, including proposed state subsidies for education, remains the same.