A bill that would increase minimum teacher pay in Maine to $40,000 passed out of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee on a 6-4 party line vote Wednesday.

Democrats backed the bill, sponsored by committee chairwoman Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, that would raise the minimum pay for starting teachers, taper state funding to districts over several years, increase mentoring for early-career teachers and increase the amount of state student loan aid available to students training to be teachers.

Millett removed a section on teacher training after announcing that similar legislation was being pursued at the federal level.

The four Republican members present voted against Millett’s bill, saying they backed an amendment by Republican Sen. Matt Pouliot that would have included a $40,000 base salary as part of a statewide teachers contract.

Pouliot, of Augusta, introduced similar legislation last session for a statewide teachers contract, but it died in committee.

The state last raised the minimum teacher pay in 2005, to $30,000. 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.

Millett’s bill tapers off the additional state funding over three years, with 100 percent of the difference provided by the state in 2019-20, 66 percent of the difference in 2021-22 and 33 percent of the difference in 2022-23.

The average statewide beginning salary in 2018-19 was $35,215, according to survey data by the Maine School Management Association.

Only a handful of southern Maine districts have a starting salary above $40,000, including Yarmouth, Falmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Westbrook, Five Town Community School District in Camden, SAD 51 in Cumberland and SAD 35 in Eliot. More than two dozen districts have starting salaries below $33,000, according to the MSMA data.

Millett suggested Pouliot put his ideas related to a statewide teachers contract into a separate bill, saying his amendment was not “even closely germane” to the minimum salary bill.

“I do believe my good colleague Senator Pouliot cares about teachers,” she said. But the amendment was introduced at the work session on Wednesday and “no one knew, no one testified, no one had a chance to give feedback.”

Millett also said former Republican Gov. Paul LePage had “exhibited great animosity” toward public schools and teachers, and she questioned whether grouping all teachers under a statewide contract would make them vulnerable to a chief executive “with that kind of viewpoint.”

Each school district now negotiates its own contract with teachers. The Maine Education Association represents nearly 24,000 teachers statewide.

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

Two other bills before the committee that also would have raised the minimum teacher salary were unanimously defeated.

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.

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.

Millett’s bill, L.D. 898, does not cover teachers in Maine’s unorganized territories. Millett said those teachers are paid on the state employee scale, and have a minimum salary of $42,600.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

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

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