When it comes to school spending, the voices most often heard tend to come from one of two extremes. Those pushing for aggressive increases in school funding often paint a picture of a school system in “crisis” in order to justify their calls for more spending. At the other extreme are those advocating against any increase at all in school spending, arguing that people are being taxed out of their homes. Neither of these narratives is accurate. As usual, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. We need to continue to make improvements to our school system, but we must do so in a responsible manner that is fair to taxpayers.
We often hear from those that favor significant increases in school spending statements like these: “RSU 5 has been underfunded for years. We have a lot of catching up to do. We need to pay our teachers more or we are going to lose them. We are losing too many students because we aren’t investing enough in our schools.” The truth is RSU 5 does not lag the region in spending; the district has been strongly supported by taxpayers; and we do not need top-of-the-market pay scales to attract and keep excellent teachers.
It is true that some students choose to attend schools outside of RSU 5, but that has been an issue in Freeport for well over a decade. The reality is that students have many more choices today due to charter schools, easier access to transfers via superintendent’s agreements and more aggressive recruiting by the many private schools in the area. New leadership in the district and the renovations at the high school will help reverse this trend. In the meantime, we need to focus more on meeting the needs of the kids that are actually in our schools and less on chasing those who make a different choice.
The claim by some that RSU 5 has been chronically underfunded in recent years is not supported by objective data. The chart below illustrates the spending of RSU 5 and all neighboring school districts, plus Cape Elizabeth, as a percent above or below the state-determined minimum spending for Essential Programs and Services (EPS) in that district. As you can see, RSU 5 has consistently been among the top spenders in our region, tracking closely with Cape Elizabeth. RSU 5 is not falling behind its neighbors with regard to education spending. We are spending enough money. If we aren’t getting the results we want, perhaps we need to spend it differently.
We frequently hear stories about how fortunate we are to have such an excellent teaching staff in the district. I believe that to be true. However, I don’t believe we need to offer pay scales on par with the most affluent districts in the state in order to keep and attract excellent teachers. If that were the case, how is it we are able to have the excellent staff we have now? Don’t misunderstand, our teachers need to be fairly compensated, but we should be benchmarking an average of all neighboring school districts, not just the more affluent ones, with the goal of arriving at pay scales that are competitive, but not top of market.
There are many reasons teachers chose to work in a particular school district. Pay is just one of them. To suggest that the quality of education in RSU 5 will be compromised if we don’t pay what the more affluent districts to our south pay is an insult to the many great teachers we have in our district who choose to be here. It’s true that some teachers may leave for higher paying jobs elsewhere, but it’s equally true that this district has a very good history of attracting excellent new teachers to fill those positions. A certain amount of turnover in the teaching staff is healthy. It brings new experiences, new energy and new ideas to the district.
RSU 5 is an excellent school district that has been well-funded and strongly supported by the taxpayers. We are not in crisis and the sky is not falling. That doesn’t mean we don’t have problems to solve or improvements to make, which is why I support reasonable growth in the school budget. When determining if a proposed spending increase is reasonable or not, it’s not enough for board members to simply ask themselves; “Is it good for kids?” This is a public school system and what the public can realistically be asked to pay for must also be considered.
History shows that RSU 5 taxpayers will support reasonable growth in the school budget. This has been true even though the rate of growth in school spending in recent years has outpaced the rate of inflation as well as personal income growth in Maine, as the table below shows. There is a limit, however. In the last two years, the rate of school budget growth has accelerated to nearly four times the rate of inflation. The superintendent’s proposed budget for next year calls for spending growth at nearly eight times the rate of inflation. That is not reasonable.
I attended every board meeting where administrators presented their requests for additional spending versus last year. Individually, nearly every request seemed worthy of support. When added together however, the total spending increase is too much for a single year. A 9.15 percent increase is not a fair ask of taxpayers. The board should determine a maximum acceptable percentage increase and prioritize spending accordingly.
Any budget calling for a 9.15 percent increase has very little chance of winning voter approval. Superintendent Michaud said himself at the recent school board meeting in Pownal that over the course of his long career, 9.15 percent is the largest increase he has ever presented to a school board. I would urge the board to send this budget back to the administration and insist that they prioritize their spending requests and come back with a budget calling for a more reasonable increase in the neighborhood of 5 percent – still ahead of the inflation rate, but more manageable for taxpayers. In the 10 years prior to joining the RSU, Durham voters regularly approved average annual school budget increases of 5 percent. A 5 percent increase would represent a responsible balancing of necessary school program improvements and the impact to taxpayers.
Kevin Nadeau is a resident of Durham and a member of the town Budget Committee.