BRUNSWICK — Gov. Paul LePage’s discussion about bullying Monday at Brunswick Junior High School led to questions about the state’s commitment to funding school services.
LePage spoke at length about the correlation between poverty and bullying at the school’s second annual Civil Rights Day, drawing heavily from his own experiences growing up in Lewiston.
“(Bullying is) a lot less about the form of your eyes or the color of your skin,” he said. “It’s a lot more about if you have holes in your shoes. … I had holes in my shoes and kids would laugh at me.”
“You hear a lot about civil rights movements,” LePage continued. “… How they’re against African-Americans being discriminated against, Native Americans being discriminated against, and all these folks are being discriminated against. … (But) the No. 1 item being discriminated against in the world every single day is the poorest kid in the class.”
LePage said he was that child, often going to school unwashed and unfed, after he left home at age 11 to avoid repeated beatings from his alcoholic father. He told students that he eventually got off the streets because of his teachers.
He stressed that bullying often leads to larger problems outside of school, like domestic violence.
“(Domestic violence) is a socially heinous, unacceptable crime against humanity,” he said. “I’m here to tell you: you can stop it. You can can make those murders go away by speaking up when you see domestic violence.”
He told students that if they are experiencing violence at home, or know anyone who is, to call 2-1-1 or tell a teacher.
“Go to a teacher … and they will help you,” he said.
LePage had a few final words Monday as he left the school and walked back to his black SUV : “The losers are the teachers and the students, and the winners are the unions.”
If that is true, the middle school LePage had just spoken at is barely holding on.
In a school budget year that many have described as “bare bones,” BJHS Principal Walter Wallace said his school is “fortunate” that programming won’t be cut this year.
He said caring staff, an advisory program with a 10-to-1 student-teacher ratio, a breakfast program, and the backpack program facilitated by the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program were all important services the school provides for vulnerable students.
But there’s more the school could do to assist these kids, he said.
“We’d love to have social workers in the schools that are School Department employees,” he said. “… Mental health is a huge issue.”
Two social workers for BJHS and the high school were added to the School Department’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016, but funding could not be found to pay the salaries.
Wallace added that he hopes this will be addressed in future budgets.
The number of students on free and reduced lunches, often used as a proxy for youth considered to be economically disadvantaged, has increased from 22.5 percent of the student population in 2007 to 31 percent in 2014, according to School Department data.
Yet many on the Brunswick School Board have argued that even as need is increasing, state support for public schools is declining.
The state school subsidy to Brunswick for essential programming and services has fallen more than $4.5 million since 2008, according to Department of Education data.
When asked after his speech how schools should continue social services programming with shrinking state aid, LePage replied that the state under his administration pays more per pupil than ever before.
For school year 2013-2014, the most recent year on record, the state paid $12,000 per pupil, higher than any other year, according to data from the state Department of Education.
But the amount of aid the state actually gives Brunswick to fund its essential programming and services, a number the DOE estimates annually, tells a different story.
For fiscal year 2016, DOE estimated Brunswick needs to spend about $27.5 million to adequately provide essential programming and services in its schools. Excluding debt service, the state is funding 32.5 percent of that estimate.
The state is supposed to be providing 55 percent of the EPS estimate, after a 2004 voter referendum.
By contrast, in fiscal year 2008, Brunswick received almost 48 percent of the EPS estimate.
The result is a $4.5 million budget shortfall that must be accounted for with either program and service cuts or raises to the property tax rate.
The shift in EPS funding “clearly indicates that the state is not keeping up with its own estimates of what it means to provide funding for essential services and programming,” School board member Rich Ellis said Tuesday.
“For anyone who is somehow trying to make the case that Augusta is funding more for local education, I would welcome them to embrace reality and truthfully acknowledge the financial chaos that their policies are creating for local municipalities and our public schools,” Ellis added.
Gov. Paul LePage speaks to students at Brunswick Junior High School on Monday, June 1, about bullying and domestic violence.