Gov. Paul LePage called Tuesday for Maine to “right-size” K-12 education in the state through regional consolidation of what he portrayed as bloated administrative ranks.

But even as LePage defended his administration’s education spending, critics accused the governor of engaging in a budget “shell game” while ignoring the real factors behind rising school costs.

The Republican governor once again accused Maine’s nearly 150 superintendents of inflating education costs, and urged parents to “speak out” on the need to share administrative costs as school enrollments decline. He said Maine “probably needs about a dozen” superintendents to oversee a shrinking K-12 population now numbering 175,000 students.

“If you had one superintendent per county, it would be too much in Maine,” LePage told WVOM radio show hosts Ric Tyler and George Hale. The state has 16 counties.

Later Tuesday, LePage held a lengthy news conference during which he released details of a proposal to create up to 12 regional “school management centers” to provide services such as payroll, transportation, nutrition and management to participating districts. The bill is part of his administration’s Embrace Initiative that uses incentives – including $2.7 million awarded to seven school-based projects this month – to explore collaboration.

“We have too many superintendents and what we’re looking at is to regionalize – not consolidate but regionalize,” LePage said, seeking to differentiate his strategy from the controversial school consolidation process pushed by his predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci. “Not every school district needs to have a backroom operation. If local school districts want to go at it alone, we are not going to interfere. If local taxpayers want to have a local superintendent, let them pay for it. Let us pay for the students.”

LePage’s focus on administration costs are by no means new, but come at a time when the State House is bracing for a major fight over a voter-approved 3 percent tax increase on wealthy Mainers to fund schools.

Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said, “Maine’s voters need to be aware of this shell game when they hear the rhetoric around the increased costs of education.”

FOLLOW THE SHIFTING EDUCATION COSTS

Critics note that LePage’s proposed Essential Programs and Services budget of $991.4 million for fiscal year 2018 is only a few million dollars more than the budget for fiscal year 2009. And while total school enrollments have declined, the losses are spread out around the state in a way that makes it difficult for districts to achieve savings.

“Even as we see decreased student enrollment, there has been an effort to shift new costs into the state’s school funding formula to make it appear that more is being spent on education,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association. “Maine’s voters need to be aware of this shell game when they hear the rhetoric around the increased costs of education.”

Education funding has increased during LePage’s tenure, but not necessarily at his request. And comparing figures between budgets can be difficult because of accounting changes, fluctuations in federal funding and policy decisions that affect how much non-classroom money flows from Augusta to school districts.

LePage’s current budget proposal would spend about $20 million less on public schools than his last budget. And during the last budget cycle two years ago, it was the Legislature that put additional K-12 money into the budget. Critics also note that the state’s share of education funding has never reached the 55 percent supported by voters and would stand at 47.7 percent under LePage’s budget.

Also, the state’s own figures show that special-education instruction costs – not administrative costs – are by far the biggest driver of rising education budgets.

Between the 2004-05 and 2014-15 school years, total state spending on “system administration” actually declined from $69.5 million to $66.7 million, according to data from the Maine Department of Education’s website. Total spending on special-education instruction, meanwhile, surged from $230.4 million to $351.8 million, or nearly 53 percent. The total budget for “regular instruction” also jumped during that period, but by a much smaller margin than special education, rising from $782.7 million to $923.3 million, or 18 percent.

LACK OF STATEWIDE SPECIAL ED STANDARDS

LePage attributed some of the rising costs to a lack of statewide standards that lead to students with, say, dyslexia or discipline issues needlessly being placed in special ed programs.

“If you had a streamlined organization with better superintendents running the entire system, you would have a standard for qualifying kids for special ed,” LePage said.

Lawmakers are currently reviewing – and substantially rewriting – LePage’s two-year budget proposal. The nearly $1 billion in education funding represents about one-seventh of the governor’s $6.8 billion budget. But he also has called for an overhaul of the state’s education funding formula and proposed ending all state support for school administration.

While LePage portrays his proposed changes as a way to lower local property taxes, critics contend the governor is doing the exact opposite by shifting costs onto local taxpayers. During a public hearing last month, opponents said LePage’s K-12 funding proposals would cost schools statewide as much as $190 million and would reduce state support for 65 percent of school districts.

The fight over education funding is also tied up in the debate over the 3 percent tax surcharge on Mainers earning more than $200,000. Supporters say the surcharge will funnel more than $190 million into schools, helping the state meet the 55 percent statutory goal and reducing pressure on municipalities to increase property taxes. But LePage and Republican lawmakers contend the 10.15 percent tax rate on earnings above $200,000 is driving professionals and successful individuals out of the state.

“If anybody believes that affluent people don’t speak with their feet, you’re in complete denial,” LePage said. “People are leaving left and right.”

TEACHERS SAY MORE STATE AID NEEDED

During a rally outside the State House after LePage’s news conference, teachers and representatives of the Maine Education Association called on lawmakers to protect the 3 percent tax surcharge.

Allison Lytton, a second-grade teacher in Lewiston public schools, said teachers routinely seek out grants or crowd-sourcing to pay for education costs once covered by the state.

“It is time that public schools receive what they deserve and what taxpayers have spoken for,” Lytton said at the Stand Up for Students rally organized by the MEA. “The state must stand up for students and follow through with what the voters have approved.”

The question of what to do about the tax surcharge – approved by a narrow majority of voters last November through Question 2 – could become the largest sticking point between Democrats and Republicans in budget negotiations.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH