The starting salary for teachers would increase from the current $30,000 a year to at least $40,000 under any one of three bills presented Monday before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Raising teachers’ starting pay was a signature campaign promise by Gov. Janet Mills, who put $10 million in her first budget to help districts pay for it.

“If we value education, then we need to pay teachers a professional, livable, respectable wage,” said committee Vice Chairwoman Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, who taught for 37 years, including 30 at Bangor High School. “Teachers should not have to choose between the desire to educate and financial stability.”

Kornfield’s bill, L.D. 405, would raise the minimum salary to $40,000 and require the state to send money to districts to meet the new salary minimum.

The cost to lift starting pay was not immediately available, but in 2017 when similar legislation was proposed, the state Department of Education said it would cost the state $14 million to raise base pay to $40,000. Since teachers’ wages have increased since then, it is expected to cost less to get all of them up to $40,000, said committee Chairwoman Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth.

The state last raised the minimum teacher pay to $30,000 in 2005. Under that law, the state sent money to districts to make up the difference if districts paid teachers less than the 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 two other bills are L.D. 419, which would raise the minimum pay to $50,000, and L.D. 898, a more comprehensive bill sponsored by Millett.

Her bill would raise the minimum teacher pay to $40,000, taper off state funding to districts over several years, raise teacher training standards, increase mentoring for early career teachers and increase the amount of state student loan aid available to students training to be teachers.

Advocates said higher base salaries are needed to attract and retain new teachers, and Maine is facing teacher shortages in several areas. Millett also said nearly one-third of Maine’s teachers are 55 or older, and thousands are expected to retire in the next five to seven years. Low salaries can force teachers to take on second or third jobs as they try to pay off student debt.

“You can say this is becoming a crisis in many parts of the state,” said Rep. Ben Collings, D-Portland, the sponsor of L.D. 419.

The average starting salary for a teacher varies widely in Maine, according to recent survey data by the Maine School Management Association.

Based on responses from about 72 percent of districts in the state, the average statewide beginning salary for 2018-19 is $35,215, the MSMA said. The average starting salaries in the state’s nine superintendent regions, which can straddle county boundaries, range from a low of $31,787 in the Washington County superintendent’s region to a high of $39,405 in the Cumberland County superintendent’s region.

Several speakers noted that the average starting salaries in Maine are very low compared with other states in the Northeast and across the nation.

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 teachers union is “absolutely in favor of raising” minimum salaries to at least $40,000, but said it supported only one of the bills – L.D. 898 – as written. When the state raised the minimum salary to $30,000, some districts intentionally kept starting salaries low in order to get additional funds from the state, Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt said.

The MEA supports L.D. 898 because it offers state funding, but slowly scales it back over several years to discourage districts from intentionally keeping starting salaries low.

The Maine State Chamber of Commerce backs Kornfield’s bill.

“Raising the minimum salary for teachers will allow Maine to better compete with surrounding states and to grow our workforce,” said Megan Sanborn, the chamber’s senior government affairs specialist.

“The time to show how we value our teachers and respect their contributions to our communities and our state is now,” Millett said.

The bills will go to a committee work session. Proposals on the same topic frequently are combined into a single bill.

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

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