Deep value of public schools

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On March 14, the Sun Journal printed an editorial blasting the Maine Education Association  for a legislative reception I attended. The editorial (“It’s not anti-education to be budget-conscious”) was misleading. One got the impression that the MEA hauled in legislators and handcuffed us to the tables until we agreed to raise taxes.

That was certainly not the case.

Instead, I was invited by my constituents to discuss first-hand how the proposed cuts to education are affecting the schools in my district. These teachers taught my children. They volunteer in the community. And above all, they are my friends and constituents. I attended the event because they invited me, not because an MEA staffer browbeat me to be there.

We are facing substantial reductions in General Purpose Aid to Education over the next few years. During this academic year — fiscal year 2010 — GPA stands at $964 million, including the stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Next year, GPA falls to $937 million — again, including the stimulus. And for the 2011-12 academic year, with the stimulus money gone, GPA is projected to be $877 million.

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The communities in my district deeply value their public schools. With the deep cuts coming, parents, property owners and town leaders will have to make some difficult decisions. They can raise property taxes to maintain school programs and jobs, or hold property taxes steady and cut programs for students.

The impact of shifting the burden from the state to local taxpayers is compounded because the Legislature never fully implemented the will of the voters. In 2004, Mainers approved a ballot measure requiring the Legislature to fund public education’s essential programs and services at 55 percent. Despite increasing funding by hundreds of millions of dollars, the Legislature never fully met this obligation.

The teachers suggested we consider raising taxes on cigarettes and alcohol or consider a temporary one-cent increase in the sales tax, in order to restore education funding and alleviate the need to further burden property owners.

The teachers at my table also offered other ideas. For example, what educational mandates has the Department of Education recommended for elimination? (None of any substance.) Has the DOE suggested any ways to streamline itself? (Not to this date.) Has the department suggested any moves to reorganize how the students from the unorganized territories are handled? (Not yet.)

Some of your readers may not fully understand the implications of cutting funding to our public schools. After meeting with constituents at that MEA reception, my appreciation for the coming difficulties increased dramatically. We’re all in this together, and we can take some comfort in knowing that this recession won’t last forever.

State Rep. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton

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