Flat funding won’t stave off cuts, Maine higher education officials warn lawmakers

Posted March 18, 2013, at 2:18 p.m.
Last modified March 18, 2013, at 4:28 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The leaders of Maine’s public education institutions presented a mixed message to Legislature’s budget committee Monday.

While the leaders of the University of Maine System, community colleges and Maine Maritime Academy said Monday morning that they were grateful to be offered flat funding, given state government’s lingering fiscal difficulties, their institutions are nonetheless faced with making cuts rather than additions even though demand for their services is as high as it has been in years.

At issue is Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget proposal, which is currently under consideration by the Legislature, beginning with what are expected to be weeks of public hearings before the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. The budget bill, which will be debated for the next few months in Augusta, covers state spending for two years beginning on July 1.

LePage has proposed essentially flat funding for higher education institutions and public schools during the next two years. But as some described, rising and uncontrollable costs, as well as aging infrastructure in some buildings, add up to a bleak financial situation.

James H. Page, chancellor of the University of Maine System, said that his system is taking additional steps to cut costs.

“The University of Maine System is aware of the unique challenges facing this committee as you look to report out a budget to the full Legislature,” said Page. “If the committee is able to hold educational and general activities appropriations flat for the upcoming two years, as proposed by the governor, our trustees have committed to holding undergraduate, in-state tuition flat for the next two academic years. This will allow us to reverse the trend of year-over-year increases and give us the time to implement structural changes to help control future costs.”

The trustees, who did not raise tuition levels for the current academic year for the first time in at least 25 years, voted in September to keep tuition flat for the next two years as well. LePage, in turn, who had previously requested a freeze in tuitions, reacted to the system’s decision by saying it wasn’t “good enough.”

“They’ve got to show me a heck of a lot more than just freezing tuition,” LePage said to the Bangor Daily News in September, suggesting as one way to increase revenues that the system do more to attract higher-paying out-of-state students. “I will freeze and maybe increase appropriations if they lock [in] tuition for every freshman class for four years.”

State spending on the university system stands at about $176 million a year.

John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, said community colleges are in a similar situation, having frozen tuition for the current academic year last summer. It was the eighth time the system has frozen tuition in the past 14 years. The system is in line for about $54 million in funding in each of the next two years if LePage’s budget proposal is approved.

“In light of the economic challenges our state has faced, and will continue to face, the recommendation from the administration is understandable,” said Fitzsimmons. “However, it does present great challenges for our colleges.”

Fitzsimmons said the system needs an additional $1 million a year to maintain current programs and operations and that in the past four years, state appropriations have increased by 2.4 percent while enrollments have gone up by 25 percent. Fitzsimmons said 84 of the system’s programs are running at capacity and are turning students away.

At Maine Maritime Academy, according to institution President William Brennan, years of flat or near-flat funding from state sources and others have led to a lag in upkeep of the academy’s facilities.

“Our costs have continued to increase and we have approached the point of diminishing returns in adapting our antiquated buildings to contemporary purposes,” said Brennan.

Parents, students and teachers also testified, many of them against the portions of the budget that affect local public schools. A proposal by LePage to have local districts begin to fund half the cost of teacher retirements drew a lot of criticism. Emmanuel Caulk, superintendent of Portland Public Schools, said property taxpayers there have borne steep increases in recent years, which will continue if the retirement proposal goes forward.

“We need the state as our partner, therefore I’m asking you to reconsider shifting the retirement costs,” said Caulk. “I’m asking you to make an investment and the appropriate investment is in our children.”

Kurt Thiele, a senior at Hall-Dale High School in Farmingdale, told a similar story: after years of cuts there is nowhere left to go.

“We are no longer talking about cutting out the fat from our schools,” said Thiele. “We amputating arms and legs.”

Maggie Stokes, a fifth-grader from Oakland, delivered an articulate and impassioned plea against the budget proposal.

“It’s frustrating to all of us that the state of Maine keeps cutting funding for education,” said Stokes. “After all, we are the future of our state.”

Lauren Umberhind, a senior at Richmond High School who intends to study nursing next year at the University of Maine, said in the course of a week she travels to two neighboring school districts in order to take top-level classes, plus she takes some online.

“I am doing all those now for a high school education and this is before the governor’s proposed cuts to local schools,” said Umberhind. “It is extremely difficult for the students in my school to compete for admittance and scholarships.”

Virgel Hammonds is the superintendent in RSU 2, which is Umberhind’s district. He voiced a range of ways the Legislature could better fund education, including adding a penny to the sales tax, increasing the lodging tax, establishing higher taxes for high-earning families and individuals, adding higher taxes on cigarettes and earmarking revenue from the state’s casinos for education funding.

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