What The New State Budget Actually Means For Maine Schools

Jul 6, 2017

State education officials told local school districts Thursday they’ll find out what their share of increased state school aid will be two weeks from now. The new state budget includes $162 million more in state aid, but there are many details behind that number.

For starters, the new budget only provides $48.4 million more for the upcoming school year. For the 2018-2019 school year, the increase swells to more than $113 million more. The budget law says at least 50 percent of the increased state funding should be used to lower the local contribution to education.

That’s good news for local property taxpayers, who could see some relief, but some school districts that were counting on more money might be disappointed. The $162 million figure is about half of what was expected from the 3 percent surtax on incomes above $200,000 that voters approved in November.

Because that surtax was repealed by the Legislature, the head of Maine’s teacher’s union, Lois Kilby-Chesley, says that will result in lower payments.

“If you think about what the school districts thought they might be getting, and perhaps built their budgets on, they now get half of that,” she says.

In addition, districts that now get little or no money through the state school funding formula will see little, if any, of the extra money.

Kilby-Chesley says the repeal of the surtax also repealed a provision that would have directed new dollars.

“The money from Question 2 was meant to go into classrooms, not to be used for administrative services,” she says.

LePage wanted to reduce funding for administrative services by $40 million. That was rejected by the Legislature, but under the budget agreement reached this week, there will be some reductions in administration funding for districts that don’t join a regional cooperative.

Next is the question of how close this new money brings the state to meeting its obligation to fund 55 percent of education costs. Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon says it leaves the state short.

“So, I hesitate to say exactly,” she says. “I think it puts us at about 52 percent.”

But Republican state Senate President Mike Thibodeau says there’s another way to calculate that percentage.

“Republicans will point to the unfunded liability that the state is picking up for teacher retirement. It’s in statute, and I would suggest that we have exceeded our 55 percent commitment with this $162 million,” he says.

Finally, the Legislature dug through a number of state government accounts to find the extra $162 million that will pay for the increased school aid. Steve Bailey, past president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, says that raises the question of where future funding will come from.

“That’s an ongoing question and one that we need to be concerned about as we finish on this two-year cycle. We take a look at the budget preparation two years from now, we want to make sure we’re not reverting two the start of the process this year,” he says.

Kate Dufour of the Maine Municipal Association says the holy grail is a new source of ongoing revenue for schools. Without it, she says in two years the state will find itself right back where it was a few days ago, scrambling to put together an education funding budget.

For disclosure, Lois Kilby-Chesley’s Maine Education Association represents most news staff here at Maine Public Radio.