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Superintendents aren’t what ails Maine schools
Below is the full text of an editorial that appeared in the Portland Press Herald on Sunday, July 10, 2016, regarding what’s driving the cost of public education in Maine.
By The Editorial Board
Maine schools have a funding problem, but contrary to a popular belief, it’s got little to do with the people who run them.
Blaming the state’s many, high-paid superintendents for busting school budgets has a long bipartisan history. That was partially the basis for then-Gov. John Baldacci’s school consolidation plan, and superintendents for years have been a favorite target of Gov. Paul LePage, most recently at one of his “town hall” meetings last week in Boothbay. But the criticism misses the mark. Maine could certainly stand to operate its school districts more efficiently, but cutting the number of superintendents would have little effect on the bottom line.
Gov. LePage likes to point to the relatively large number of superintendents in Maine, but it’s stagnant state funding that is putting pressure on local property taxpayers.
According to the Maine School Management Association, there are 96 full-time and 32 part-time superintendents in Maine.
True, as Gov. LePage often says, that’s a lot more on a per-student basis than, say, Florida. But states like Florida that operate much larger school districts, often at the county level, also spend more on mid-level managers who do much of the work asked of superintendents in Maine.
Principals in Florida may oversee more students than many Maine superintendents, but superintendents here are often asked to do the work normally reserved for principals.
In the end, it largely evens out. A review by the National Council of State Legislatures found that Maine spends 10.59 percent of education funding on administrative costs, basically the national average. And that’s in a rural state where geography doesn’t always lend itself to large, efficient districts.
What’s more, even if all superintendents were eliminated – a ridiculous notion – that would free up only $12.3 million a year in a billion-dollar budget.
By comparison, this year the state will miss its mandate to fund 55 percent of K-12 education costs by $178 million. Filling that gap will take more than repeating inaccurate barbs against administrators.
Question 2 on the November ballot would help. By placing a 3 percent tax on all income over $200,000, it would raise an estimated $157 million in the first year and go up from there.
That would protect property taxpayers from continued unsustainable increases, and help give schools the money they need to do all that they are asked to do.
That list grows every year. The cost of special education continues to rise. More and more, students with real behavioral issues tax school resources. More and more, schools are asked to not only educate a child, but to look after their well-being as well, and to provide what isn’t being provided at home — food, school supplies, extra help.
Yet, the state’s commitment to education this year is $983 million, the same as 2008-09.
Spending more doesn’t necessarily lead to success. But when schools are cutting teachers and programs and increasing class sizes to make budget, when teachers are reaching into their own pockets to buy supplies, and when property taxes are going up regardless, it is clear there is a funding problem.
That doesn’t mean the state shouldn’t look for efficiencies. There are initiatives, such as distance learning, that can help smaller or more rural districts offer the best education possible at a fraction of the cost.
However, cutting superintendents would produce only meager cost savings while offering only questionable improvements to education.
Advocating for those cuts is an easy way to gain favor with people upset about the role schools play in rising property taxes. But if that’s your best plan for getting more money into the classroom, it’s time to try harder.
This bulletin is part of MSMA’s service to MSBA and MSSA to keep members informed about news and events regarding public education in Maine.