Maine’s public schools are cutting positions and programs to plug budget holes as they plan for the 2010-11 academic year.

Next year, school officials will be doing the same thing, but without the benefit of nearly $60 million in federal economic stimulus money pumped in this year.

At the same time, schools’ fixed costs — including salaries and health care costs built into negotiated contracts — are rising. And costly special education services are consuming a greater percentage of school budgets.

It seems like the perfect storm of challenges for Maine’s next governor.

Conditions call for more than just trimming around the edges and adding furlough days, said David Flanagan, former Central Maine Power Co. chief executive and former independent candidate for governor.

“The overwhelming challenge is how to bring education spending under control and refocus it toward better outputs, both in scores and in the number of kids actually benefiting from a K-12 education,” said Flanagan, who led a task force last year charged with recommending ways to streamline Maine’s university system.

The state’s performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress has slipped in the past decade compared with other states, according to the Maine Education Policy Research Institute.

The state’s graduation rate — 84 percent during the 2007-08 school year — and the percentage of those graduates continuing their education — 72 percent of 2005 graduates — suggest schools aren’t reaching substantial numbers of students, Flanagan said.

“Existing mechanisms don’t work for an awful lot of people,” he said.

The five Democrats and seven Republicans who will appear on the June 8 gubernatorial primary ballot have words of praise for what Maine schools have achieved, but acknowledge that improvements are needed.

The candidates agree that Maine’s economic health depends on the state’s schools graduating more students prepared to enroll in college. Some would-be governors say programs such as Jobs for Maine Graduates, aimed at dropout prevention and transitioning students to life after high school, need to be replicated throughout the state.

By and large, the Republican candidates think charter schools should be part of the mix. Democrats — save for Rosa Scarcelli — aren’t so sure.

The federal government is pushing states and school districts to adopt performance-pay systems that compensate teachers based on their students’ academic progress.

Democrat John Richardson is outright opposed to that. Others have varying degrees of enthusiasm for it. All think Maine’s teachers must play a role in determining how they’re evaluated, especially if their pay is on the line.

Most candidates said they’d do their best to meet the 2004 voter mandate requiring the state to fund 55 percent of education costs. The state will be at 48 percent, and slipping, starting in July.

But before Maine can meet that obligation, the candidates agree, schools must continue to work at operating more efficiently. 

Steve Abbott, R: The top education priority for Maine’s next governor, Abbott said, has to be continuing to rein in K-12 spending. That must happen if Maine is ever to meet its 55-percent education-funding obligation, he said.

Maine might realize some of those efficiencies through continuing school district consolidation. But the consolidation effort has to be more focused on reaping savings from regionalizing school administration rather than closing schools, Abbott said.

“The priority has to be dollars in the classroom, and not dollars in administration,” he said, adding that school closures are a local decision.

Abbott said he’d support allowing charter schools in Maine as part of a “framework where we promote innovation and flexibility.”

He also favors allowing the Maine Education Association to play a role in determining how teachers are evaluated using student data. “I think that they can add ideas and experience,” Abbott said.

Maine’s economic success depends on a higher percentage of its population having college degrees, Abbott said, be it two-year, four-year or graduate school.

“Those people are going to help us attract businesses,” he said. “They’re going to help our businesses expand.”

Maine schools need to do a better job making sure students are prepared for all the college experience entails, Abbott said, perhaps replicating the Jobs for Maine Graduates model to ease the transition.

“We lose them all the time in the first few months,” he said. 

Bill Beardsley, R: Beardsley said the state should keep its word and fund 55 percent of the cost of local education.

“That integrity is almost more important than anything else,” he said. “We need to be moving in that direction.”

Overall, Beardsley said the K-12 system in Maine is “pretty good” but that by replacing the teacher-tenure system with multiyear contracts and merit pay, schools would be even better. He said charter schools — and strong home schooling — should all be part of the mix.

For years, schools have gotten extra money if they put more children in special-education programs, something that Beardsley said drives up costs. Also, he said the state has a low student-teacher ratio, which can be costly.

Beardsley said he understands the state’s interest in school district consolidation, but that it would have been better to provide incentives, rather than penalties, to get school systems to merge.

“I am indignant that they would fine a town that tried to consolidate and couldn’t,” he said. “We need to send signals to towns so they will want to consolidate.”

Beardsley said that when the state economy improves, he would invest more money in preschool for at-risk children to help get them off to a better start in life.

Beardsley, former president of Husson University, said a strong economy will prompt more Mainers to get a college education.

“The best driver to go to college is a good job opportunity,” he said. 

Matt Jacobson, R: Jacobson said the state’s focus when it comes to education should be on excellence, not funding.

“We get all hung up measuring dollars and not whether our kids are getting anything out of it,” he said.

Charter schools are worth a try, he said, especially if they help reduce the state’s dropout rate. Jacobson said his administration would be a leader in bringing charter schools to Maine.

Jacobson said he has relevant experience when it comes to working with the teachers’ union — while running a railroad, he worked with 10 separate unions. The Maine Education Association should have input into how the schools are run and how teachers are evaluated as long as the union isn’t the only voice at the table, he said.

Requiring school districts to consolidate is a good idea, he said, but the state went about it the wrong way.

The difficulty came in trying to apply the same rules in both Cumberland and Aroostook counties, he said.

“It was only focused on money,” he said. “Are we preparing our kids well enough to compete with the new ground rules of a global economy?”

Jacobson said he favors taking a “K-20 approach” that integrates schools and the business community to ensure that children and adults are ready for the industries and professions located in the state. 

Paul LePage, R: LePage said public schools need competition from charter schools to make the educational system more successful.

“I’m a big, big supporter of charter schools, vouchers and home schooling,” he said.

He said the state needs to live up to its responsibility to fund 55 percent of the cost of education, but that the costs covered by the state have been “a moving target.”

LePage said he would want to establish a system to better evaluate teachers.

“As governor, I would immediately call the unions in and ask them to renegotiate a segment of the contract to say teachers need to be evaluated on performance,” he said.

When it comes to school performance, LePage said, Maine schools are lagging behind where they were 20 years ago. He said he would reform education and human services funding to free up money to help pay college tuition for Mainers.

He said those who earned an “A” would have their entire cost paid, “B” students would get 50 percent paid, “C” students 25 percent paid and a failing student would be responsible for repaying the loan.

When it comes to school district consolidation, LePage would have taken a different approach.

He said he would have had only 16 superintendents — one per county — and would have required nonclassroom services such as computers, nutrition, accounting and busing to be administered by county government. Then, he would offer incentives for districts to consolidate. 

Pat McGowan, D: McGowan gives Maine’s public schools a “good” rating overall.

“I say that from being the parent of three students and from what I hear on the campaign trail,” he said.

The state’s education system, McGowan said, must ensure all graduates are ready for higher education.

“It’s got to be the objective of a governor to flip one of the highest rates of high school graduation into a high rate of college graduation,” he said.

To accomplish that, McGowan said, the late Harold Alfond is Maine’s primary ally.

The Alfond College Challenge expanded in 2009, and now awards $500 in college savings to every Maine-born baby. That philanthropy forms the crux of McGowan’s approach to getting more Maine students into college.

“It’s Harold Alfond-plus, plus, plus, plus,” he said. “Plus an education system that doesn’t leave behind mediocre students.”

McGowan said he’ll make it a priority to see that Maine reaches its obligation to fund 55 percent of public education costs.

Charter schools might be a part of that system, McGowan said, but he’d prefer to see a type of charter school that works in rural areas and that doesn’t elicit division among educational interests.

“I think that Maine could carve its own way to meet that statute,” McGowan said of the federal definition of a charter school. “I don’t know if I would introduce legislation or petition the (U.S.) Department of Education for a waiver.” 

Peter Mills, R: Mills said requiring the state to pick up 55 percent of the cost of education in hopes of lowering property taxes hasn’t worked out as planned.

“Most of the money was used to make education more expensive,” he said. “It wasn’t used to lower property taxes.”

He said once the economy recovers in three to five years, the state should consider putting more money toward K-12 education if it can find an accurate way to gauge how well schools and students are performing.

On the issue of charter schools, Mills said he supports them but doesn’t think they are a significant way of improving education.

When it comes to tying teacher pay to student performance, he thinks the Maine Education Association has a role to play in directing how it would work but should not have veto power over which models are offered to schools.

“I want to see some big changes made in how we measure value and growth of student performance in the classroom,” he said.

The school district consolidation efforts would have been better if the state had provided incentives, rather than penalties, and if the state provided stronger oversight of which districts could merge, Mills said.

When it comes to higher education, Mills said, the best way to encourage more Maine people to get a degree would be to lower the cost. Once the economy turns around, the state should consider investing more in higher education while holding the line on human services costs, he said. 

Libby Mitchell, D: Mitchell says she wants to be Maine’s “education governor.”

But, she said, meeting the state’s 55 percent mandate means growing the economy.

“There’s nothing more important than making sure we have adequate funding for education,” she said. “We also have to grow the whole economy in order to be able to afford that.”

Long-term, that economic growth is largely dependent on more Maine people earning college degrees. Since college-educated workers earn more money, Mitchell said, more college degrees will help boost Maine’s lagging per-capita income.

Mitchell said more students need exposure to college campuses through field trips. And schools need to do a better job graduating their students college-ready.

“There’s much too much remedial work going on at the college level,” Mitchell said. “That should be taken care of much sooner.”

Mitchell said she’s opposed to allowing charter schools in Maine. They divert funds away from traditional public schools, she said, and serve a small slice of students.

“I’m thinking about all the students in Maine who need a first-rate quality education,” she said.

Schools looking to improve their performance can look to a handful of successful turnaround efforts that have been undertaken in some Maine schools, Mitchell said. Portland’s King Middle School is an example, she said.

“So much of it is not just money, but a lot of it is leadership and community support.” 

Les Otten, R: Otten said the best way to improve education in Maine is to focus on the importance of teachers.

“I think the key is to start by saying the most important person in the quotient is the teacher,” he said.

From there, he said, adding charter schools, changing what’s taught in schools and addressing the way teachers and schools are measured and rewarded will help improve educational quality.

Otten said there should be a direct link between what’s taught in schools and in the university system to the types of industries that are growing in Maine.

Also, the education system must be flexible, he said.

For example, if a high school in Lubec closes, there should be no reason why the state can’t work with Canadian officials on an international school that would help keep families in the area, he said.

When it comes to school district consolidation, Otten said, the original idea got “watered down” and it was “executed poorly.”

“There was not a lot of money saved and an awful lot of effort,” he said.

And while the state has some role in helping to contain costs, Otten said local communities should maintain most of the control. 

Bruce Poliquin, R: Poliquin said he considers the issues facing education from a business perspective with the realization that the state does not have a lot of money.

“The state is broke,” he said. “We have no new money because state government has been mismanaged for so long.”

When it comes to improving K-12 education, the state should be willing to try new approaches such as charter schools, merit pay for teachers and more school choice options for students, he said. The Maine Education Association should be involved in helping design a system to reward good teachers for their performance, he said.

Poliquin said the state spends too much per pupil and that students need to get a higher quality education.

On the issue of school district consolidation, Poliquin said Gov. John Baldacci did the right thing by trying to reduce administrative costs.

“If you really start digging down, the problem we have is not what we’re paying our teachers but it’s the administrative costs,” he said.

The son of a Waterville teacher, Poliquin said he knows the value of a good education. He said a strong private sector economy will generate the revenues needed to support good schools and the state university system. 

John Richardson, D: For Richardson, too many state policies have been imposed “top-down.”

School district consolidation was an example.

Instead, Richardson proposes a philosophy he calls “lean initiatives,” in which stakeholders come together to determine what policy works best.

“In doing that, people find efficiency and savings and a better way of doing business,” he said.

Richardson says Maine needs to seriously consider charter schools.

Asked if he would introduce the legislation to allow them, he said, “I would certainly be working with all interested parties to determine whether charter schools are in our best interest.”

Richardson said he’s opposed to performance pay for teachers. “Compensation should be negotiated between the unions and school management,” he said.

But if student performance is going to be factored into teacher and principal evaluations, Richardson said, it is “refreshing” to have seen a six-member panel evolve in the final days of the legislative session to pre-approve evaluation models from which school districts can choose.

“We need more of this model,” he said.

As governor, Richardson said, it’d be a priority to comply with the 55-percent education funding mandate. He touts the fact that he was speaker of the House when legislators passed a budget that reached the 52 percent level.

Richardson also said he’d direct more state funds to the university and community college systems to make college more affordable.

Steve Rowe, D: The most effective investment Maine can make in its education system, according to Rowe, is in additional pre-kindergarten programs.

“If we want children to do well in kindergarten through (grade) 12 and higher education, it matters what happens before they start kindergarten,” Rowe said.

Rowe said early-childhood education would be a focus of his administration along with access to higher education.

More Maine people — young people and working adults — need advanced degrees, Rowe said, and earning those degrees must be more affordable.

“If you want to keep tuition down, there has to be an increase in funding in our higher education system,” he said.

In addition, Rowe said, Maine’s university and community college systems must continue working at becoming more efficient.

Those efficiency-finding efforts should also continue in the state’s public schools, he said. Rowe said he’d consider school district consolidation, perhaps through a system that offers districts incentives, rather than penalties.

Rowe said he doesn’t “rule out” charter schools, but he’s opposed to allowing them now.

“I don’t want to take money from other public schools right now for the purpose of charter schools,” he said. “We ought to strive to infuse more innovation and creativity into our public schools.”

When considering performance pay for teachers, Rowe said he favors involving teachers in deciding how they’re evaluated. He cautioned against relying on “one test” to determine pay. 

Rosa Scarcelli, D: Maine’s next education commissioner will have a big job, according to Scarcelli.

The work of school district consolidation isn’t done, the state’s special-education costs still must be reined in and below-average student-teacher ratios must be brought in line with national norms, she said.

In addition, Maine has yet to meet its 55-percent funding obligation.

“It’s important that we have a higher rate of funding so it doesn’t continue to be pushed down to the communities and cause such a distinction between what the communities are offering,” Scarcelli said.

But “in order to make that commitment, the state has to have a higher level of control over some potential cost savings.”

That includes standardizing how schools identify special education students. The percentage of students identified as special needs varies too much from district to district, Scarcelli said.

That control also includes continuing consolidation, she said, but through an incentive-based system that lays out options for school districts and offers them a chance to redirect savings into the classroom. Penalties would kick in if they don’t make deadlines.

Scarcelli said she favors charter schools for students not well served in traditional public schools and she favors performance pay for teachers as a way to ramp up average teacher salaries in Maine.

Scarcelli also said Maine needs to make an upfront investment in pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten. It would pay off later in savings, she said, in the form of fewer special-education students, fewer adults requiring social services and more citizens working.