In his budget proposal released earlier this year, Gov. Paul LePage vowed to drastically transform how schools are funded. The most notable change was the removal of roughly $40 million that the state gives local districts to help pay the salaries of administrators.
In his State of the State address, LePage hammered home the point that he thinks there are far too many administrators in Maine’s schools. Most notably, he pointed to the more than 100 school superintendents across the state.
“We are the biggest outlier in the country when it comes to superintendents,” he says. “We are just out of control. We need to seek accountability.”
Among many changes, LePage’s new budget would remove all state money for those administrators — about $40 million.
The new funding formula would boost allocations for some districts. Lewiston, for example, would receive an additional $4 million, and districts in Wells and Kittery would see at least another $100,000. However, other districts are looking at deficits that have them worried.
“There’s a point where you can’t do it with what you’ve got,” says Mary Nash, superintendent for MSAD 35, which covers Eliot and South Berwick.
Under the new budget plan, Nash says her district is looking at a loss of more than $750,000 in state funds. She says the district would have to cut teachers and increase class sizes across every grade in order to balance its books.
Nash says she understands that the governor wants to decrease administrative costs and direct more money toward student instruction, but she says his plan would likely wind up hurting students in her district instead.
“These cuts are so significant. They will impact every single one of our students next year. There’s no question,” she says. “And that’s what’s at stake for us.”
In RSU 18, in the Belgrade Lakes region, Superintendent Gary Smith is looking at similar losses.
“We are getting too good at cutting,” he says. “Each year, and this year’s no different.”
Smith says for the past eight years, his district’s budget has increased by only about 2 percent. But this year, he expects to reduce the staff by the equivalent of five-and-a-half positions.
On top of that, Smith says he’s asking local voters to put up extra money this year to help cover losses from the state. But he’s unsure how much more they will agree to pay in property taxes.
“I’m expecting, because we have some of the lowest mill rates in Kennebec County, I expect some very good questioning about a 3.25 percent budget increase,” he says.
While the cuts in these districts are severe, they aren’t set in stone. The Legislature will continue to debate the budget over the next few months.
Earlier this month, dozens of educators packed a budget hearing to testify against the proposal. Many were critical of the fact that the plan ignores a referendum approved this past fall that boosts education funding through a surtax on wealthier households.
Ultimately, school officials say they are optimistic that the Legislature will include more funding for education in its final budget. But in the meantime, they have to be prepared.