AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Education Association brought teachers from across the state to Augusta to discuss what they say is a devastating education budget proposal by Gov. Paul LePage.
Acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardins was quick to fire back, saying support for Maine schools from the state is at record levels.
The MEA says the aid to local schools proposed by LePage is flat funded at a time when the costs of running schools, from salaries to supplies, continues to go up.
"The governor will say there aren't cuts to education, but when costs go up and the state money stays the same, it results in cuts to our classrooms," says Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the MEA.
At a news conference held at MEA's Augusta headquarters, several teachers said the budget will be felt in their own classrooms.
"LePage's budget puts our students last," says Denise Simoneau, a middle school teacher in the Bangor school system. "Direct state funding to school districts like mine will remain at the 2013-2014 levels through the 2016-2017 school year. That will have a negative impact on my students."
Acting Education Commissioner Tom Desjardins says enrollment across the state has dropped by more than 8,000 students since LePage took office, while appropriations to local schools has increased by $148 million since the last budget of his predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci, in budget year 2011.
"We are spending record amounts of money per student on our educational opportunities in Maine, so the budget is larger per pupil than it has ever been in the state," Desjardins says.
Jill Watson, a special education teacher at Maranacook Community High School in Readfield, says she thinks LePage would rather cut taxes for the wealthy instead of properly funding schools.
"The path for the economic success of our state runs directly through our public schools," Watson says. "It's time lawmakers in Augusta understand the importance of our public schools and choose to support students education over tax cuts for the wealthy."
Desjardins says he and the governor recognize the importance of the schools to economic development. He says in budget year 2011 the per-pupil state funding was $4,619. In the governor's proposed budget that amount will increase to $5,389 in budget year 2017, an increase of nearly 17 percent even as the number of students attending Maine schools is projected to continue downward.
"We are approaching the point in Maine where we are spending a billion dollars a year just in state treasury money on education," Desjardins says.
He says part of the budget is aimed at helping school districts make changes that will provide them with ongoing savings to help meet the costs of local schools in future years, not just meet current bills.
"Ten million dollars of the governor's budget this year is to entice school districts to merge, if not as whole districts, than in what we call their back office functions," Desjardins says. "Maybe five of six districts do their accounting together, do their payroll together. And the state will give them the money to get that started."
Kilby-Chesley says many of those efforts are already underway. She says in rural Maine, merging districts may not be practical and could hurt put students on buses for much longer times. Desjardins says Maine has to start facing the demographic realties of fewer students and limited resources. This battle is likely to be continued next month when public hearings are held on the governor's education proposals.
An earlier version of this story was incorrectly attributed to The Associated Press.