Superintendent's Notebook: It takes a state to support education

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One of my core values is that it takes an entire community to ensure the success of our public schools. That doesn’t mean just our local community. As our legislators work in Augusta to decide how much to allocate in state funding to local school districts, I’d like to point out that we are all part of one community: the state of Maine.

Education plays a vital role in that community. Maine’s schools and businesses are closely linked. Our schools educate the workforce of tomorrow, ensuring today’s students have the knowledge and skills to prepare them for 21st-century careers. But if Maine schools don’t get the funding they need to do that, the skills gap will widen. Without an educated workforce, we won’t be able to attract businesses to our state and our economy won’t be able to grow and prosper.

Our state Legislature is in the midst of making decisions about General Purpose Aid to local school districts. Back in 2005, Maine voters said the state should pick up 55 percent of the cost of education. However, the education budget that Gov. LePage has proposed calls for funding only about 46 percent.

If passed, that budget would do a disservice to students, parents and local property taxpayers by failing to adequately fund the true cost of education in Maine.

The cost of education in the budget proposal has increased by $68 million, but state aid to local districts is only going up $20 million, according to the Maine School Management Association.

At the local level, that means an unreasonable and unsustainable cost shift to property taxpayers to cover the cost of educating our state’s young people.

Here in Portland over the last few years, we have implemented a disciplined, even austere, approach to budgeting in the face of a challenging economy and declining state support. We make every dollar count and we’re showing our community a positive return on its investment – our students are demonstrating growth. My proposed budget for fiscal year 2016 simply maintains current resources and staffing while investing in our employees.

Yet under the governor’s budget proposal, Portland stands to lose more than $900,000 in GPA in the new fiscal year, according to the latest state numbers. Without that hole, the 2.3 percent tax hike that my proposed budget entails would drop to just 1.1 percent.

We’re not the only school district facing a bleak budget outlook. Just based on inflation, costs are increasing statewide for special education and general operations. In addition, the governor and Legislature have imposed numerous mandates on public schools over the past four years.

Those include changing diploma standards, developing and implementing expensive new teacher evaluation systems, moving to a Common Core system and implementing new standardized tests. Such requirements add costs, yet the state hasn’t provided new funding to match those costs.

Furthermore, the state has shifted teacher retirement costs onto local districts. Historically, the state had paid the full employer share of teacher retirement costs. State government has ways to raise revenues and spread out tax responsibilities in an equitable fashion.

Local communities lack those options. At the Portland Public Schools, for example, the cost of teacher retirement creates a $1.3 million to $1.5 million hole in our budget. If the state restores full state responsibility for funding teacher retirement costs, and Portland didn’t have a decrease in GPA, my budget proposal would require a zero tax rate increase or even lower.

Another one of my core values is: Students come first. It’s time for our state to prioritize our children and provide the funding our schools need to successfully prepare them for college and career.

That is why I have asked state legislators – the leaders of our state community – to help Maine schools succeed by increasing state aid to education, making up the difference in the governor’s budget proposal and keeping the mill rate for local property taxpayers flat.

I urge you to also ask your elected representatives to fully fund Maine’s educational needs and not shift that burden onto local taxpayers. Meeting the full educational needs of Maine students is the fair, equitable – and community-minded – thing to do.

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Portland Public Schools Superintendent Emmanuel Caulk writes this column monthly. He can be reached at superintendent@portlandschools.org. Read his blog at blogs.portlandschools.org/superintendent/.

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