First in depth look at the Governor’s budget proposals for Maine education

Monday, February 25, in committee, we got our first detailed look at some of the initiatives related to education that the Governor has placed within his biennial budget proposal.

As Commisioner Bowen was up in our neighborhood congratulating Deer Isle High School for their dramatically improved graduation rate, our committee was briefed on the budget by Deputy Commissioner Jim Rier who did his best to confine his explanation to the facts, even though many of us on the committee were eager to probe him on the underlying implicit policy.

This budget proposes to allocate just under $923 million for state aid to public schools for 2014.  While this represents an increase of $27 million over last year, the state contribution still remains $55 million lower than it was in 2008.

Recently Maine’s total school spending has decreased from a high of $2,047 million in 2009 to $1,973 million in 2012.  Significantly, many school districts are now spending below the threshold level which the state calculates as necessary to provide sufficeint opportunity for students to meet Maine’s Learning Results.

This inadequacy of funding is amplified in this proposal by the Governor’s initiative to shift the liability for the payments for teachers’ retirement from the state to the local school districts.

Specifically, the Governor proposes to shift $29 million of “normal retirement costs” (calculated as 2.65% of current teachers’ salaries) from the state’s general fund to the local school districts.

To soften the immediate impact of the transition, the Governor proposes to have the state contribute half this amount as additional state subsidy to schools which would be distributed to schools through the state’s school funding formula.

This means that some districts would receive more than 50% of their costs while others would receive less than 50%.  While a few districts actually would benefit under this arrangement, minimum receivers of state subsidy such as MDI would receive nothing and would have to shoulder the full liability of these costs historically assumed by the state..

Not surprisingly, the Governor’s proposal continues the structural gap between the state’s 9-year-old citizen initiated statutory obligation to fund 55% of the foundational cost of regular education and 100% of schools’ special education expenses.  For the biennial budget, rather than 55%, the Governor proposes that the state provide 44.7% of the foundational cost of regular education.   And, rather than reimbursing 100% of special education costs for minimum receivers, the Governor proposes reducing the state’s reimbursement to 25%.

For MDI, the Governor’s proposed shift in liability and reduction in state aid breaks down this way:

  • Bar Harbor: ($105,611.89)
  • Cranberry Isles: ($4,720.64)
  • Frenchboro: $2,381.79
  • Mount Desert: ($60,942.74)
  • Southwest: ($65,957.99)
  • Swan’s Island: ($15,916.60)
  • Tremont:($32,192.72)
  • Trenton: ($61,771.42)
  • MDI High School: ($187,444.41)
  • Total: ($532,176.62)

At the same time, that the Governor proposes to shift over a half million dollars in school funding to MDI property tax payers, he also proposes to add a half million dollars of additional state expenditures in a new category called the “Choice and Opportunity Fund” which is in essence a school voucher program that would pay for students to attend private and charter schools outside of their own school district.

This budget item radically modifies and expands the section of statute which currently provides funding specifically and exclusively to the Goodwill-Hinckley Center of Excellence for At-risk Students, perhaps leaving funding in doubt for its operation.

Next, the Governor proposes to broaden the state’s discretion over the allocation of casino revenues which, under the present referendum-initiated statute, are dedicated to “supplement and not supplant” general purpose state aid to education, effectively making permanently more easy the sort of raid on this revenue accomplished by the most recent supplemental budget.

On Monday, March 18, our committee and the Appropriations Committee will hold an all-day joint public hearing on the sections of the budget related to education.

This will be the time for all to present their concerns.

Links to selected sections of the Governor’s budget proposal:

Related news reports