During this season of school budgets and the associated discussions, conversations and debates, I feel as though a bit of background and context will be invaluable to taxpayers, town managers, boards of education and selectpeople. All of the stakeholders will be trying to navigate the treacherous waters of financial responsibility and responsiveness to the needs of both the educational community and the community on whole.

As an educator and a local union leader (for the sake of full disclosure), I have watched my local board of education struggle with balancing the growing needs of the student population and the burden of increasing local property taxes. The situation appears to pit local citizenry against the local school district, which is a no-win situation for anyone.

Many community members support the local school district. Shortchanging education has significant implications for the ability to prepare students for their futures. Overtaxing the local population can lead to a populace that turns against education and educators and furthers the sentiment that many people in the local economy have no expendable income.

Why has this happened to larger extents through the past decade? There is a simple reason. The state has a mandate to fund at least 55 percent of the education costs of the public school districts and 100 percent of the special education expenses. Currently, that mandate is unmet, with general education funding at approximately 47 percent and special education coverage at less than 40 percent.

For my district (RSU 9) alone, the state would be contributing an estimated additional $2 million to our education costs (amount was provided by the MEA based on Department of Education figures). That means the tax burden placed on local taxpayers would be alleviated by that amount.

In the school year 2008-2009, the state spent nearly $983 million on education, which was approximately 53 percent of the costs. This school year (2015-2016), the state contributes $983 million, accounting for that 47 percent.

In seven years, the state has failed to increase funding, which means the localities scramble every year to produce the money needed to meet that growing need. The number of students with special needs and those living in poverty (based on qualifying for free and reduced lunch) are increasing, further stressing the services provided by the school district.

Why does this matter? Taxes are taxes, some might say.

That is true, however, when you look at the tax base required to fund education, it is easier to do with a statewide tax base, rather than relying on small communities with little to no industry to try to meet that widening gap. Demanding local property owners to cover that shortfall is unfair without a doubt.

This situation exists because the state has refused to meet the mandate (funding 55% of education costs) that the citizens of Maine dictated. Rather than debating these points locally, disgruntled taxpayers should be focusing on the larger body — the state — rather than the local school district.

There are many different possible solutions to this issue.

One that has been suggested by the Maine Education Association is to add a 3 percent surcharge to income over $200,000. This would generate additional funds that would allow the state to start to meet that mandate. That surcharge would impact less than 2 percent of Maine’s population, while helping to relieve property taxes.

Other solutions have been offered in the past, but no others are being discussed currently. However, in the end, we need to address the elephant in the classroom, and that is the fact that the state has continuously failed to meet the mandate of funding public education, and that needs to be addressed.

Douglas Hodum is a science teacher and the science department head at Mt. Blue High School. He lives in Farmington.


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