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Governor's Plan to Delay Voter-Approved Tax Surcharge Concerns Maine Educators

PORTLAND, Maine - Maine voters last fall approved an initiative to add a 3 percent tax surcharge to incomes of $200,000 or more.  It would increase funding for schools, by an estimated $157 million.  

But the budget the Maine Legislature's Appropriations Committee takes up this week doesn't have that money.  Instead, Gov. Paul LePage's spending plan proposes a small overall increase in school funding, a cut in general purpose aid to education and a one-year delay in that new, higher income tax on the wealthy.


The governor's budget also proposes to end the concept of an "essential programs and services" budget, end state funding for school superintendents, provide incentives for districts to consolidate  and create a statewide - or at least region-wide - teacher contract.


 It's all a bit much for Steve Bailey, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association. "The attempt itself to present re-writing policy through the budget process just doesn't make sense to us.  So, that would be, pretty much, an overall concern."

Bailey says one proposal from LePage that superintendents have wanted for years is to remove so-called "Title One" monies from the school funding formula.  Those are funds meant to help students from lower-income families.  The effect has been to penalize districts with a higher proportion of such students. 


But Bailey says there's a caveat. "It increases the ratio within the formula so that, instead of class sizes being lowered, class sizes in the ratio are being expanded. And that's going to affect, and impact, districts differently."


The governor made a big point during his State-of-the-State address about the need to shrink the number of school superintendents and otherwise spend less on administration so more money can be put into classrooms.  


Bailey says both the number of superintendents and other administrative costs have gone down in the past decade.  "It's gone down 4 percent in the last 10 years.  And those were based on state numbers as recent as 2014-15."


Bailey says the total cost of Maine school superintendents amounts to one-half-of-one percent of all the money spent on education.  


How do Maine schoolteachers view the governor's budget? Lois Kilby-Chesley is president of the Maine Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union.


"It's really important for us to make sure that we are still funding education to the levels that we need,  and also meeting the needs of families," Kilby-Chesley says, "because we don't have children just standing alone - it's important to make sure that the families are getting what they need too.  So, there are several different things in the budget that we have concerns about."


One of those is the proposed year-long delay in implementing the new tax on wealthy Mainers to provide more school funding. "I know that the governor thinks that voters didn't know what they were voting for, but I believe that we don't give voters the credit that's due them when we say things like that."


Kilby-Chesley says that delay combines with the governor's proposed income tax rate cuts to generate a double-whammy for many Mainers. "What we're seeing is that the wealthy get a break once again, and the rest of us are the ones who take a hit."


Then there's the governor's proposal to freeze state pension benefits for two more years.  "The governor saying, over and over again, how important it is that we take care of our people who are elderly and retirees," Kilby-Chesley says. "We couldn't agree more."

But she says that's hard to square with his proposed two-year freeze in pension benefits.  

Finally, there's the governor's proposal for a statewide teacher contract. "MEA did meet with Gov. LePage and we did talk to him - actually we listened to him talk - about a potential statewide teacher contract," Kilby-Chesley says. "We will continue to listen and talk."


The Appropriations Committee will be the next place people talk about all this.  Hearings on the education part of Gov. LePage's budget are scheduled for this week.


Editor's Note:  The Maine Education Association represents many members of Maine Public's news staff.