AUGUSTA – Recently, the State Planning Office completed a study on the state spending limits applied in LD 1, the funding law that governs support for localities.

The information supplied suggests that most municipalities are operating within the spending limits while most schools are not.

This brings to mind the old adage that figures lie and liars figure.

The suggestion that schools are wasteful spenders comes about because the SPO is comparing horses to giraffes. They are two totally different spending limit systems.

The SPO should be embarrassed that they are perpetuating this myth about wasteful spending instead of acknowledging the state’s chronic underfunding of schools.

For municipalities, counties and the state, LD 1 takes an actual spending level and applies an annual growth factor.

The school system limit takes an arbitrary spending model called Essential Programs and Services (EPS) that is manipulated by the state to restrain growth.

EPS sets a minimum spending level that will in theory support the essential learning conditions for all students across the state.

In reality, it is a politically established floor based on state budget constraints that has little to do with student needs.

When the LD 1 limits were placed on schools and municipalities in 2005, a strong majority of school systems were already over the EPS model.

No other level of government was presented with the challenge in 2005 of cutting its spending to achieve contrived benchmarks, except for schools.

In 2007, the Legislature arbitrarily reduced the ”system administration” component of EPS by more than 40 percent, and the special education and transportation and operations-maintenance elements of the model by 5 percent.

Given the design flaws and manipulations, it’s a wonder that 100 percent of the school systems aren’t over the model every year.

The sad truth is that EPS enables the state to avoid its commitment of paying 55 percent of the state’s share of the cost of K-12 public education and pushes those costs onto local taxpayers while portraying schools as wasteful.

In the end, school systems exceed the LD 1 guidelines because local citizens in budget meetings are authorizing those expenditures in order to give their students a better quality of education.

This is done in hopes that they will develop the skills they need for a good job.

Those skeptics who don’t believe schools are being frugal with their money should sit down with their local school boards and watch them agonize over each expenditure in their budgets.

The pain in school budgets is being multiplied by the state’s refusal to meet its commitment to pay 55 percent of the total costs of K-12 schools that was adopted by public referendum in 2004.

Voters mandated this financial support in order to relieve the burden on local property taxpayers and provide for a high quality education.

Our legislators never carried out the voters’ directive and the state’s share is now sliding below 43 percent.

This is putting additional pressure on local taxpayers and slowly eroding the quality of our school programs.

The hard truth is that if state budget cuts continue, the quality of education provided to Maine students will deteriorate as programs are cut, class sizes increase, and learning opportunities are curtailed.

Some schools are already considering waivers on Maine’s Learning Results, and others will be unable to provide even the minimum essential programs and services.

Without a concerted effort to change this direction, the downward economic spiral continues unabated.

Education must be a primary tool to fight this recession.

Through our K-12 programs we prepare students to compete in a world marketplace, and through the University of Maine and Community College Systems we develop the skills and talents of our citizens of all ages to attract good jobs to Maine and reinvigorate our economy.

Mainers know these hard times require sacrifices — and one of those may be to temporarily increase state revenues through additional fees or taxes.

By spreading the burden across the entire state we will build the foundation for economic recovery, preserve an excellent system of public education, and avoid severe hardships for our citizens.

During the Great Depression, education offered hope for a better life.

Education is even more important today than it was in the 1930s, and we must all work together to offer hope for our students’ future.

 

– Special to the Press Herald