It’s a beautiful time of year. Things are getting green, songbirds are singing, and the annual votes on school budgets are before us.
It has led to robocalls against the budget in Lewiston and Portland’s City Council trying to pare back a proposed 5 percent property tax increase, while the voters of SAD 1 have turned down a budget based on an average 4 percent hike in taxes.
With all this bad news, coupled with political primaries racing towards the June 12 election, some legitimate rays of hope have been overshadowed. On April 30, the Maine Department of Education announced 12 regional educational service centers — covering 56 percent of Maine students — are approved at the state level. They will now go to the local communities for approval; you may see it on your ballot this summer.
It is an exciting initiative from Gov. Paul LePage. Rather than the forced regionalization pushed in earlier years, this program seeks to incentivize Maine’s school districts to work together. It starts with the “back office” — accounting, payroll, student records — with great potential for the future. Schools can choose to work to share infrastructure spending, including borrowing authority. Transportation could be consolidated and approached comprehensively, rather than each town maintaining a fleet of big yellow buses.
For Maine taxpayers, this is a critical step forward. In 2002, the per student K-12 cost for education in Maine was just over $7,000. To keep up with inflation, it would have needed to increase by about 38 percent over 15 years. In reality, it increased by about 69 percent. In other words, we are spending more today on a per student basis than we ever have. Some of that may be worthwhile, but continued real growth isn’t sustainable. Resources are finite, so we need to bend the cost curve and spend smarter dollars.
This means incorporating alternative learning opportunities. Not every student is built to thrive in a traditional classroom setting. Some may do better with experiential instruction, be it cuisine or carpentry. LePage is fond of telling students he hated geometry, until he realized angles and joinery — applied geometry — are critical to woodworking. That experience drove home the academic concepts.
Bangor is leading such an effort for Penobscot County middle schoolers. SAD 27 is doing the same in the Saint John Valley.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the educational spectrum, work continues on the so-called “Maine Center.” An aspirational integration of the University of Maine System’s graduate professional education, it seeks to reduce redundancy in public higher ed and focus our resources more clearly on meeting the needs of the future Maine economy. In short, it is an effort to spend smarter dollars at the graduate level.
At all levels of public education, there is a recognition that our schools need to be made more efficient. Taxes cannot be raised continually to increase school budgets, so additional resources will need to come from economic growth. However, with record low unemployment rates in Maine and massive shortfalls in the skilled workforce, our schools need to turn out individuals ready for our economy both today and in the future.
This is an incredibly dynamic and complex challenge, one which only gets harder when things like English-as-a-second-language students, special education, and failing buildings enter into the mix. But if the solutions were simple, we would already have found them.
So as we enter into voting booths to vote “yea” or “nay” on our local school budgets, you may find an additional question about shared services on the ballot. A “no” is for the status quo, while a “yes” vote towards regionalization leads towards a new way.
Take a close look at it. You might just find it a parting gift from LePage.