2017-03-23 / Editorial

Funding schools and avoiding tough cuts

Beyond the Headlines
by Rep. Justin Chenette

Saco has been in the midst of some intense debate recently when it comes to our local school budget. A laundry list of cuts were recommended by the superintendent’s office to the Saco School Board before city council weighs in and a final budget is approval by voters.

It’s important to take a step back and understand the underlying issues that put us in this manufactured crisis. A majority of this budget dilemma stems from the state, and more specifically, the governor.

The governor’s budget creates massive chaos in public education and cuts more than $23 million in funding for schools, along with shifting another $40 million in other education costs to local communities. This impact is now being felt in school boards and city councils across the state. Our community in particular is having tough conversations about how to handle this shift in the financial burden to the local level.

The governor’s budget proposal doesn’t fund the state’s share of education at 55 percent as mandated by voters. Back in November, the ballot initiative to increase state funding for public schools earned more votes than both presidential candidates and more than Gov. Paul LePage earned in either of his elections. The 384,000 voters who cast “yes” votes on Question 2 shows that Mainers are serious about funding our schools and about tax fairness.

It’s no wonder why. Voters first made their commitment to public schools clear back in 2004, when they supported a referendum that required the state to fund 55 percent of the cost of essential programs and services at our K-12 schools.

The state has never once made good on that requirement even though many of us have tried and advocated for it. In the past six years, the state had the nerve to give not one but two massive tax breaks to the wealthy. Every giveaway to the rich made it harder and harder to fund our schools. Every handout for the rich shifted the tax burden onto local communities and property tax payers. Since 2008, the state has pushed more than $1.3 billion of education costs onto property tax payers to cover up its failure to meet its obligations.

According to data from the Maine Department of Education, calculations show that almost two-thirds of Maine students live in districts that will see a decline in education funding from the state if the governor’s budget proposal is approved as is.

Saco is poised to take a hit of $278,406 in a lowering of the state’s contribution of education funding to the city. This is from the 48 changes in the EPS funding formula.

This is combined with an additional $417,000 cut in state support for Saco’s superintendent and administrative central office staff due to the governor removing $40 million from the budget for those costs. The combination of these two costs shifted to the local level forces Saco to make up at least $700,000.

According to the Saco superintendent, the city is facing a shortfall of nearly $3 million. A chunk of that, it seems, comes from the state not providing its fair share.

Last year, when voters reiterated their dedication to our public schools, they didn’t just tell the Legislature to fund education, they gave explicit instructions on how to do it – a new 3 percent surcharge on income over $200,000.

The surcharge affects roughly the top 1 percent of income earners in our state. It covers the cost of meeting our obligations to local schools, while restoring a sense of fairness to our tax code. The benefit to our local schools is substantial. It would mean about $190 million in additional education funding, statewide. This would mean a vital investment in the future workforce of our state.

If we assume the 55 percent is met and assume the changes to the EPS formula in the governor’s budget are kept, here is it what it means for our area:

In Saco, it means an additional $3 million a year in state funding. MSAD 6, which includes Buxton, Hollis and Limington, will see $2.7 million more in state funds. Old Orchard Beach would receive more than $100,000 in additional funds. Clearly more changes to the EPS formula are needed for low receiving communities such as Old Orchard Beach to get a better deal. Overall though, that’s funding that for the first time in years won’t have to be covered by property taxpayers.

Instead of debating yet another tax cut for the wealthy, which the governor is seeking to do by repealing Question 2, we should focus on repairing the damage caused by the past six years’ huge cost shift onto our communities and property taxpayers. We need to expand property tax relief programs while at the same time the state must meet its obligation to our local schools. It’s what the voters demand and what our communities deserve.

I, for one, appreciate our community rallying around the idea that we can ensure high quality education for our kids without further ballooning property tax bills. Now Augusta needs to listen and see the impact of not meeting its part of the bargain.

Justin Chenette is serving his first term as the youngest senator in the Maine Senate representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton. He previously served two terms in the Maine House of Representatives. Outside the Legislature, he is owner of Chenette Media LLC, a multimedia public relations company, and is the president/ CEO of the Saco Bay Center of Civic Engagement, a 501c3 nonprofit service organization. Sign up for legislative updates at www.justinchenette.com or www.Facebook.com/JustinChenette.com.

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