AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage’s two-year spending plan for public schools drew a barrage of criticism from dozens of parents, school board officials, teachers and others during a public hearing at the State House Friday.

The education funding package is part of LePage’s two-year state budget proposal now under review by the Legislature’s Appropriations and Education committees, which heard from LePage administration officials as well as critics of the plan during the joint hearing.

LePage’s budget plan would spend about $1 billion of state funds on public schools in the next budget cycle, about $20 million, 2 percent, less than the state spent in this cycle on public schools. State spending on schools in the LePage proposal represents about one seventh of the total $6.8 billion budget plan being offered by the governor.

The LePage administration said the plan will redirect more funds away from administrative costs and into Maine’s classrooms, create incentives for school districts to regionalize operations and open the door to more publicly funded charter schools.

Opponents argued that the plan amounts to a cost-shift from the state to local taxpayers and will cost schools statewide as much as $190 million. They said LePage’s budget reduces state support for 65 percent of school districts and ignores a voter-approved ballot question that calls for a 3 percent surcharge on the state’s income tax for households earning more than $200,000 as a way to increase public school funding.

LePage’s budget plan spends about $1 billion of state funds on public schools in the next budget cycle, or about $20 million less than the state spent in this cycle on public schools. State spending on schools in the LePage proposal represents about one seventh of the total $6.8 billion budget plan being offered by the governor.

LePage administration officials reviewed line-by-line the budget proposal Friday morning while nearly 70 people waited to testify against the administration’s proposal.

Among other things, LePage wants to remove about $40 million in state funding that goes toward covering administrative costs in school districts.

“The governor’s budget creates winners and losers and clearly ignores the will of Maine people who spoke on Election Day when they voted to pass Question 2,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, a statewide teacher’s union. “Those voters wanted to provide more funding for our schools, not less. They didn’t ask to help some students and not others. Voters supported increasing education funding. They didn’t ask to create a system of winners and losers where one community gets millions more and another gets millions less.”

The 2016 law change is the second education funding proposal that’s been passed at the ballot box in the last two decades. In 2004, Maine voters approved a measure that would require the state to cover 55 percent of all public school costs. That funding level has never been reached by the Legislature.

Supporters of the income tax surcharge have said it was necessary in order to fully fund the 2004 initiative and make clear to the Legislature that Maine voters wanted their public schools funded appropriately.

But LePage has argued the state spends far too much on administrative costs, frequently noting that the state has 148 school superintendents for 176,000 students. That is roughly one for every 1,200 students.

In his budget proposal, LePage notes that the state’s public school student population has decreased by 11 percent, or 23,000 students, in the last 10 years while education spending has increased 27 percent. However, it isn’t clear where LePage got his enrollment figures. Data on the Department of Education website show that the number of public school students 4 years old through 12th grade declined by roughly 11,000, or 5.4 percent, in the last decade to 188,599 in 2015-16.

His proposals for education funding are among the boldest components of his overall budget plan and include a repeal of the state’s Essential Programs and Services funding formula, known as EPS. The formula is how the state distributes education funding to districts across the state.

Under LePage’s plan, the EPS system would be replaced by 2019 with a new formula that provides state funds only for “direct instruction and support for student learning.” LePage has said if local school districts want to continue to have their own superintendents they can do so, but they will have to be funded by local property taxpayers and not the state.

“Instead, the state provides $11 million over the next biennium in the funding formula to regional education service agencies that school districts can contract with to provide services. Local communities can decide and fund their own administrative structures,” a budget briefing prepared by LePage’s staff states.

But dozens of those testifying, including school superintendents and school board members from districts across Maine, said LePage’s shifting education numbers means their school districts will be getting significantly less funding from the state.

Bo Bigelow, a Falmouth parent, told committee members that teachers in his daughter’s school did the difficult and important work of providing her with the education she needs. Bigelow offered emotional testimony about his 7-year-old daughter’s special education needs saying, “She has an ultra rare disease that has kept her non-verbal, unable to walk until recently and cognitively at the level of a toddler.”

He said special education students didn’t have “kaboom” moments like in the movie “Forrest Gump,” when the main character, played by Tom Hanks, miraculously runs away with his leg braces falling off. Instead, Bigelow said, gains are painstakingly slow and only achieved with patient and dedicated teachers like those who work with his daughter.

“This budget has it all backwards, don’t you see?” Bigelow said. “Passing this budget and cutting special ed, will be a slap in the face to all of us. You want to change the world, make things better? Pass budgets that pay teachers more and fund schools properly. Please reject this budget.”

A final decision on LePage’s budget proposal will be made in the weeks ahead as both committees will have additional hearings and work sessions before making their recommendations to the full Legislature. To comply with the state’s constitution the Legislature needs to enact a balanced state budget for the next two years by June 30 or risk a state government shutdown.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 791-6330 or at:

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