AUGUSTA – A panel that must recommend $25 million in cuts from the state budget voted Thursday to end payments to school districts to supplement teacher salaries that otherwise would fall short of the state-mandated $30,000 minimum.

The change, projected to save the state $350,000 in 2012-13, is one of several cuts proposed by the Department of Education to help bring the budget into line.

School districts that have received the money would become responsible for paying the full salary amount, said Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

“We’re still cutting checks to the tune of $350,000 out of the general fund (that are) going to a pretty big swath of districts,” he told members of the task force to Streamline and Prioritize Core Government Services.

That list includes mostly rural districts, including Regional School Unit 67 (Lincoln, Chester and Mattawamkeag), which received more than $44,000 in the last school year; Southern Aroostook, which received $25,757; and School Administrative District 63 (Eddington, Holbrook and Holden), which got $21,625.

In 2005, Bowen said, the Legislature enacted a law setting the minimum annual salary for public schoolteachers at $30,000. Since then, the state has sent money to districts to make up the difference between what the districts pay some teachers and the $30,000 minimum.

Although the law did not set a date for the state to end the payments, the intention was for the state to provide the funding for a limited number of years, Bowen said.

The panel’s vote to approve the cut means it is part of the effort to reach at least $25 million, but the group could revisit the issue before a final vote is taken, said Administrative and Financial Services Commissioner Sawin Millett.

On Oct. 6, the group will consider other cuts proposed by Bowen, including saving $850,000 by setting guidelines for students who need to use Child Development Services.

Parents now can choose to have their children receive the services until a certain age, rather than go to a nearby public school. The Department of Education is proposing to draw up guidelines to require a student’s “service plan team” to agree that it is in the child’s best interest to continue with Child Development Services.

Some members of the task force criticized the state Board of Corrections for indicating that it could not offer any cuts to meet its $335,513 target. Other groups, including the Commission on Indigent Legal Services, Pine Tree Legal Assistance and the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, also indicated they could not propose any cuts, Millett said.

Neale Duffett, chairman of the Board of Corrections, wrote in a letter that the board could not suggest budget cuts because county correctional facilities are subject to uncertain factors, such as changes in inmate population and medical costs.

“This reduction would be very unwise given our current fiscal situation and the fact the county correctional budgets are extremely tight for the current and upcoming fiscal years,” he wrote.

Joe Bruno, a former Republican state lawmaker and member of the task force, said Gov. Paul LePage should make the cuts for the group. “I’m really disappointed in this kind of letter,” he said.

Dan Billings, legal counsel for LePage, said proposals for changes in the Department of Corrections, to be released next month, might help cover some of the cuts.

However, he said, “The governor feels that shouldn’t let the Board of Corrections off the hook.”

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at:

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