MANCHESTER — School districts across the state and throughout the country currently face difficult budget decisions. State tax revenues, as we all know, automatically fell as the U.S. economy entered what some now call the Great Recession.

Many state governments, including Maine’s, have responded by cutting education funding.

The simple yet unpleasant result is that education spending cuts and/or tax increases must now occur to balance school budgets.

At the national level, stories of teacher layoffs, school closings, and possible four-day school weeks are now the norm. Here in Maine, voters will eventually decide the extent to which education spending is cut and local taxes are increased.

For example, if voters decide to maintain current spending, taxes must be increased to offset budget shortfalls.

On the other hand, if voters decide not to raise taxes, education spending must decrease by the full amount of any spending gap.

Not surprisingly, the Maine Education Association has weighed in on this issue. Officials from the teachers’ union recently called for a temporary 1-cent increase in the sales tax or an increase in the cigarette tax.

Furthermore, in testimony before the Maine Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, Chris Galgay, the president of the MEA, argued that “hard times require sacrifices” and suggested that part of the solution could be to raise fees and taxes in Maine.

He also argued that “by spreading the burden across the entire state we will build the foundation for economic recovery.”

When considering possible budget solutions, it is important that Maine citizens be aware that education spending is scheduled to increase this coming year because of increases in teacher salaries.

Salaries will increase for two reasons.

First, labor contracts specify cost-of-living adjustments that attempt to keep real salaries constant over time.

Second, salaries often increase as teachers are compensated for additional years of service.

The contracted increases in salaries for the upcoming year are nontrivial. Two not-so-randomly selected school districts highlight this. Salaries will increase by $220,000 for the Maranacook school district in which I live.

By comparison, salaries will increase by more than $400,000 in Cape Elizabeth, the school district I attended many years ago.

What is remarkable is how little attention has focused on an option that should be on the table for all school districts, namely a temporary freeze on teacher salaries.

As the above numbers suggest, a temporary salary freeze would reduce the number of school layoffs, reduce the extent to which other education spending must be cut, and/or reduce the size of any tax increase.

How can such a proposal to temporarily freeze teacher salaries gain support?

The chances of its success, I believe, will increase as more school boards, voters, tax payers, concerned parents, and editorial boards of Maine newspapers become aware of the benefits of a temporary salary freeze.

The MEA and some of its union membership will undoubtedly oppose such an option. However, several points are worth considering before rejecting it.

First, some employees in both the public and private sectors have themselves not received a pay increase during this recession.

Second, the current recession, the worst in over two decades, has already impacted many Maine individuals, either through layoffs or decreased work hours.

Third, it is worth noting that the overall price level in February of this year, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, was roughly equal to the price level that existed in late June of 2008. With inflation so low and for this particular period nonexistent, a salary freeze would be relatively painless.

Finally, for those who are concerned about education cuts, it is important to remember that each dollar that goes to salary increases is one less dollar available for other parts of the education budget.

In short, if there was ever a time for a salary freeze, this is it.

Tough times do often require “sacrifices.”

Therefore, we must all ask how the MEA and its union membership can reasonably argue for “spreading the burden” and call for Maine citizens to pay for a temporary tax increase, yet simultaneously not offer and accept a salary freeze.

If we are truly all in this education crisis together, a salary freeze must be part of the solution.