Times Record: Cost shift hits home. Hard. (June 5, 2013)

The voters in Regional School Unit 1 and dozens of other school districts in Maine are voting in referendums this week to endorse or reject school budgets that almost invariably present hefty property tax increases to Maine citizens in the interest of education.

As befits the mindless fervor of today’s boisterous anti-tax crowd, people have been coming forward to register displeasure with a bigger bill for public education. They say it’s tax-and-spend school districts spending like drunken sailors, and that their money is better invested in themselves than in their communities and the children who live in them.

Their anger is misplaced, somewhat frighteningly so.

First, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to argue with conservatives eager to blame liberals for something their conservative governor has done. By shifting pension costs to the districts and funding Essential Programs and Services at a meager 28 percent of local budgets — even though voters in 2004 mandated, overwhelmingly, it be 55 percent — the state is giving conservatives everything they want by shrinking state government and placing more of the financial decision making into the hands of localities.

Second, the budget process for most school districts is at least four and sometimes six months long. We hadn’t run into much of a groundswell of anger or discomfort with line items as they are crafted — until lately. In fact, the RSU 1 budget passed at the district level passed with more than 90 percent of the vote, tax increase or no. Probably because putting a brake on school spending would actually require a commitment to community by attending long, arduous meetings did we not hear from foes of local education spending before the budgets hit the ballot.

Third, it’s odd people would hurl insults at school boards for spending money, when their charge is to collect and render funds for expressly that purpose. It’s like being mad at Hannaford for selling groceries. What part of “school board” don’t they get?

Finally, we keep hearing about the lust for “local control” and for spending decisions to be made locally. Now that the state government has ramrodded school districts with unprecedented cost shifts for pensions, defunded them via a withering EPS model, eviscerated tax relief programs such as the Homestead and Curcuit Breaker that could have blunted property tax increases associated with education, and opened the floodgates for a wide array of players to compete for a limited and dwindling pool of funds, why does anyone wonder why their taxes are going up?

Hello? Taxes are going up because the state is defunding public schools. Localities, by and large, are making the wise choice to step in and fill the breach, at the barrel of the state’s gun.

Because school spending typically comprises two-thirds of a municipal budget or more, only Draconian cuts in school spending could have averted property tax increases prescribed by the state this season. Yet that’s precisely what foes of school spending are asking for: Cut till it bleeds, we’ll sort out the damage later.

Of course we understand the limitations of taxation and the increasing inability to pay for schools if you are elderly, disabled, lost a job or not been given a pay raise recently — a group that includes probably 90 percent of Mainers.

But localities understand something the state does not: Our future lies in getting Maine kids to develop the next generation of tech and manufacturing jobs that allow them and the state to compete on a global scale. Only by investing in the citadels of our communities — our public schools — can we dig our way out of this race to the bottom.

Good thing people at the local level know this. They will weigh in and vote to support Maine’s public schools. Then they’ll call their legislator and ask why the state has pulled the rug out from under them.

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