Education officials in Maine praised Gov. Janet Mills for supporting the state’s schools with several initiatives she included in the budget she proposed Friday.

Education Commissioner Pender Makin and Gov. Janet Mills proposed spending hikes for schools. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Highlights include increasing minimum teacher pay to $40,000 a year, adding funds to expand pre-K programs and increasing higher education funding.

“We are very glad that there is $126 million extra for education,” said Steve Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association. “And it looks like the governor delivered on her promise on early education as well as support on raising teacher pay.”

Both the pre-K funding and raising base teacher pay were campaign promises for Mills, and strongly backed by the MSMA and the teachers union, the Maine Education Association.

Overall, the Democratic governor’s $8 billion budget proposal would add $126 million in funding for K-12 education over the two-year budget – $41 million in fiscal year 2020 and $85 million in fiscal year 2021.

“After several years of staffing reductions and inconsistent leadership, the Department of Education is rebuilding and redefining their role as an organization that will inspire and support Maine’s schools and communities in providing the very best education for our children and for our lifelong learners,” Mills said when she released the budget Friday.

Despite broad agreement on the merits of early education, Maine doesn’t require it and only a handful of districts offer universal pre-K – open to any 4-year-old in the district – in part because of high cost.

In 2016-2017, Maine spent $19 million to serve 5,440 children, or about 39 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds. Based on kindergarten enrollment, universal pre-K would cost the state about $48 million a year.

Although the budget doesn’t spell out how much state funding individual districts can expect, local officials said they appreciated Mills’ priorities.

“I am grateful that Gov. Mills is prioritizing education and supporting it with additional funding,” Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana said Friday, noting the district is expanding its pre-K program. “… So we are particularly grateful for the administration’s recognition of this critical need.”

Maine last set minimum pay for teachers, at $30,000 a year, more than a decade ago. Legislation to increase it to $40,000 failed during the LePage administration, and a 2017 Department of Education analysis estimated it would cost $14 million.

OTHER EDUCATION COMPONENTS

Other major education elements in the budget include:

• Three percent annual increases for the University of Maine System, the Maine Community College System, and Maine Maritime Academy. At UMS, that’s an increase from $189 million annually to $204 million.

• $3.1 million to expand early college programs, where high school students take free college-level courses at their high schools or on campuses.

The budget “provides new resources for initiatives that facilitate learning and skill development when and where they are most needed by the people of Maine and our employer community,” said James Erwin, chairman of the system board of trustees.

• Adding $3 million to the Maine State Grant Program over the two-year budget for tuition assistance for adult learners. The program currently provides an average grant of $1,500 for about 12,500 students every year. “This is exciting,” said spokesman William Norbert of the Finance Authority of Maine, which oversees the program. “I think it can help a lot of Maine adult learners complete their degree so they can participate fully in the workforce.”

• Money for moving special education services for preschool-age children from the state to Maine’s school districts. A bill proposing such a move failed last session. Currently, the Department of Education regularly runs over its $30 million annual budget for those services provided to about 2,100 children aged 3 to 5 statewide. In shifting those services to the schools, the districts will get that funding, but take on the responsibility of providing transportation, space and specialized instruction for those students.

• Adding staff to shorten the turnaround time on certifying teachers, a chronic problem in recent years. Education Commissioner Pender Makin said the certification backlog has decreased from 16 weeks at the beginning of the year to five weeks now.

NO NEW TOP-DOWN INITIATIVES

Overall, Makin said the department would be putting the brakes on new top-down initiatives. Former Gov. Paul LePage launched a series of education initiatives immediately upon taking office, including the launch of charter schools, performance-based education and assigning A-F grades to schools.

Makin said she her only “initiative is to stop with all these initiatives. Honestly, our schools and leaders and communities need the time to evaluate what they are doing, what is working,” she said.

Some of the biggest fiscal impacts for school districts are not part of the Department of Education budget, Makin said.

Mills’ budget provides some financial breathing room for districts by increasing funding for the Homestead Act, to provide tax relief to lower income taxpayers in high-value towns. The budget also increases revenue sharing, which would provide more money to municipalities, and ease budget pressures from districts that turn to taxpayers when their state revenue shrinks.

In Portland, for example, the city gets about $4 million a year in revenue sharing under a 2 percent allocation, far short of the 5 percent revenue sharing in place when LePage took office.

In recent years, Portland has lost about $30 million in state funding because of the decrease in revenue sharing. City Manager Jon Jennings lauded the move to restore revenue sharing to 5 percent by 2022.

“By gradually increasing the amount of revenue sharing over the next two fiscal years, the governor will infuse cities and towns with revenue that is obligated thus potentially reducing the tax burden on property owners,” Jennings said.

One education cost that’s not in the budget is any move to undo a LePage-era budgeting change that shifted millions in teacher retirement costs to local districts.

Those costs, known as normal teacher retirement costs, have increased from $29 million the first year to about $51 million a year now. The costs are passed on to the school districts as part of the state funding formula. In turn, districts have had to adjust their budgets and pass on the additional costs to local taxpayers.

In Portland, those retirement costs – previously paid by the state – have totaled more than $11 million over the last five years, or about $2.4 million a year.

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

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