A bill to raise the minimum teacher salary in Maine to $40,000 a year was before lawmakers on Wednesday, more than a decade after lawmakers set the last minimum salary at $30,000 a year.

“If we want to show that we value and respect education, we must provide teachers with respectable wages,” Nate Petersen, a social studies teacher at Hermon High School, said at Wednesday’s public hearing. “We need standards that ensure anyone who becomes a teacher enters the classroom ready to reach, teach and inspire every student. You can’t attain those qualities when you’re only offering to pay someone a minimum of $30,000.”

The bill’s author, Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, had a similar bill last session, which failed in a party-line vote in the Senate. L.D. 818 would also raise teacher training standards and increase the amount of state student loan aid available to students training to be teachers.

Legislation passed in 2005 during the Baldacci administration set a minimum teacher salary of $30,000 a year. Under that law, the state sent money to districts to make up the difference between what the districts paid some teachers and the $30,000 minimum. The state funding stopped in 2012-13, when the supplement was eliminated in a cost-cutting move under the LePage administration, leaving districts to make up the difference.

The state Department of Education said Wednesday it would cost the state $14 million to implement the bill, since there are currently 2,959 full-time equivalent teachers who earn less than $40,000. L.D. 818 would require the state to increase a district’s allocation to meet the new minimum salary.

Today the average starting teacher’s salary statewide is $33,207, with a low of $30,005 in Aroostook County and a high of $35,831 in York County, according to a Press Herald analysis of Maine School Management Association data.

Millett said Wednesday that the starting salary is “so uncompetitive” that it discourages people from entering the field at all.

“Our low starting salary often forces our teachers to take second and third jobs to make ends meet,” she said before the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

A study of minimum teacher salaries by the National Education Association, which represents teachers, found that Maine ranked 41st in the nation for beginner teacher salaries.

According to federal statistics, the average salary for elementary and secondary teachers in Maine was $50,229 in 2015-16, putting the state 33rd nationally. The national average was $58,064 and Maine’s average teacher salary was well below all other New England states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The state Department of Education has taken no position on the bill, but spokesman Ángel Martínez Loredo told the committee that the department was bringing forward its own bills regarding teacher training standards and a statewide contract for teachers that “would allow for a comprehensive review of salaries.”

On Thursday, the Education Committee will hold a public hearing for L.D. 864, which would create a statewide contract for teachers, but does not stipulate a minimum salary. DOE officials said a statewide contract would be one way to ensure a consistent starting salary across the state.

Gov. Paul LePage also pushed for a statewide teacher contract in his two-year budget proposal as part of his efforts to overhaul Maine’s K-12 funding formula.

Dick Durost with the Maine Principals’ Association was neutral on the minimum-salary bill. He said the group’s members had concerns about requiring a minimum 3.0 grade-point average for teacher trainees, saying many teachers have a gift for teaching that is not reflected in the GPA.

Several teachers told lawmakers that not only do they work extra jobs, they often pay for school and student supplies because of tight district budgets.

It’s not a fair set-up, said Cassandra Edwards, who teaches second grade at Vivian E. Hussey School in Berwick.

“I feel guilty because I’m spending (about $500 on supplies) on a very small income,” Edwards said. “The idea that teachers don’t make much money has become an excuse to not pay us more.”

“There is widespread recognition teachers are underpaid,” said C.J. Betit, with the Maine Education Association, which represents Maine’s teachers. A higher starting salary is even more important because close to a third of today’s teachers will be of retirement age in five to seven years. Already there are teacher shortages in Maine in several subject areas.

“Many vacancies will need to be filled,” Betit said. “And not only are teacher salaries low … but college students today are entering the workforce with an unprecedented amount of student debt, which substantially cuts into how far those salaries stretch.”

L.D. 818 will be discussed in a committee work session next week.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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