The Universal Notebook: Standing up for students

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Every year about this time towns and cities all over Maine go through a school budget dance that varies in its local particulars, but has a few familiar steps no matter where it is done.

School administrators develop a proposed budget. School committee members discuss the proposal, make adjustments and recommend a budget to the town council. Town councilors don’t feel they have done their jobs unless they cut a little something from the school budget. Sometimes they are successful, sometimes not. Town council sends a budget to voters. Voters generally approve budgets as recommended by their elected representatives.

Sometimes there is some local opposition to the school budget from people who say things like “You’re taxing us out of our homes,” “We didn’t need a Cadillac school system when I was in school,” and “I don’t have kids in the schools, so why should I have to pay?”

In Brunswick, where I have lived since 2014, the School Board and the Town Council did a little pas de deux around an $85,000 line item for paving a parking lot. It got taken out in one vote and put back after another. That’s a pretty typical school-municipal do-si-do. Town councils represent the best interests of the residents of a community. School boards represent the best interests of the children of the community.

In Yarmouth, where I lived from 1982 to 2014, served on the School Committee from 1995 to 2001 and school facilities committee for three years thereafter, there has always been a small contingent of fiscal conservatives who oppose the school budget. But they have been a distinct minority and easily outvoted both at Town Meeting, where these matters should be decided, and at the budget validation referendum, the second bite at the apple that tax-cappers won as a concession after the Taxpayer Bill of Rights failed in 2006.

This year, I was surprised to hear that the opposition to the Yarmouth school budget was more organized and more pronounced. I was surprised both because Yarmouth gets a terrific bang for its buck in one of the best public school systems in the country, and because Yarmouth’s tax rate is actually going down thanks to a revaluation.

I expect Yarmouth voters will support the school budget again this year because the town is populated by educated people who value education, but it may be a closer vote than usual. I, of course, have been accused of skipping town to avoid high taxes after my kids graduated, but I cheerfully paid taxes in Yarmouth for five years before my kids attended school and for five years after, and I now cheerfully pay taxes in Brunswick even though I will never have children in the system. That’s the American way.

Taxes, in fact, had nothing whatsoever to do with the decision to move to Brunswick. But property values did, and they are a direct reflection of the quality of the local schools. I could afford a lot more house in Brunswick because the schools aren’t quite as good. The property tax tango starts with people being willing to pay more for homes in towns with good schools. But as school supporters settle a town, those who think they do not benefit from good schools (because they don’t count increased property values, community spirit and quality of life) begin opposing school budgets.

One of the problems with the school funding dance is that only a handful of bureaucrats understand Maine’s arcane education funding formula, which annually produces winners and losers. This year, for example, Portland is losing $2.7 million in state aid to education, while Bucksport is getting an additional $2 million. Southern Maine subsidizes education in the rest of the state.

Another misstep is that the state has never fully funded education to the 55 percent mandated by law. To that end, a coalition of school supporters statewide calling itself Stand Up for Students has placed a referendum initiative on the November ballot:

“Do you want to establish a Fund to support kindergarten through 12th grade public education by adding a 3 percent surcharge on Maine taxable income above $200,000?”

You bet I do. So I will be voting for Stand Up for Students on Nov. 8 and I will vote in support the Brunswick school budget on June 14. I always vote for school budgets and bonds, because education is the best investment we can make, not just in our children, but in our collective future. We all benefit from good schools and an educated citizenry.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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