This is not the time to pit older people against families with children when deciding whether the mil rate is more important than well-staffed quality schools. The governor proudly announced the state has a billion dollars in cash, and the Maine Center for Economic Policy discovered more than $2 billion of federal money he left on the table. There is money available at the state level to restore revenue sharing.
by Karen Heck, Central Maine Morning Sentinel/Kennebec Journal, May 2, 2017
If the state was holding up it’s end, then cities like Waterville wouldn’t be arguing over what to cut.
Democracy in action. That was my thought when I walked into City Council chambers last Tuesday night and saw the room full of people who care deeply about the quality of education and the importance of providing it here in Waterville. The lemonade I’ve been able to make out Trump’s win last November is the resurgence of resistance against those who would take this country backward.
To be clear, while the bulk of this column is specific to Waterville, the same discussions and decisions are being made in towns around us and around the state. Making sure the next generation has access to good public schools is the responsibility of all of us. And, it’s in our interest to pay forward what we had whether we have children or not. I don’t have kids, but my future depends on whether other people’s children have the education they’ll need to create a prosperous future for the state.
First, a few actual facts to inform the Waterville debate, rather than the statements created in a fact-free zone and disseminated in the debate. While over the past 10 years, Waterville enrollment, not counting Educare, has gone down 10 to 12 percent, the school budget, taking inflation into account, has also gone down by 8 percent. Per-pupil spending is now less than it was five years ago, making Waterville 206th out of 232 school systems in the state. Most of the rest of the 26 systems with lower spending per pupil have enrollments of 100 students or less.
If we had the $1 million of revenue sharing we’ve lost each year, along with the hundreds of thousands of dollars the state has transferred to the towns for teacher retirement and road repair, we wouldn’t be having a discussion about what to cut. The governor and the Legislature have been robbing the residents of towns and cities and then bragging about how they’ve lowered income taxes. I don’t know about you, but the income tax cuts I’ve experienced over the last six years don’t add up to anything close to my property tax increases. And, the governor’s income tax plan will cost those of us who earn less than $92,000 and deliver tax cuts to those earning above that.
So, while it’s important to let your legislators know that you prefer an increase in revenue sharing to the governor’s proposed tax plan, an equally important task for us is to make Waterville as attractive as possible to young families and professionals.
To do that requires some out-of-the-box thinking and a change in attitude from one of scarcity to one of abundance. This is not the time to pit older people against families with children when deciding whether the mil rate is more important than well-staffed quality schools. The governor proudly announced the state has a billion dollars in cash, and the Maine Center for Economic Policy discovered more than $2 billion of federal money he left on the table. There is money available at the state level to restore revenue sharing.
In the meantime, we have options. Short term, let’s make sure that those who are in need of help paying for a tax increase get it. Is everyone who’s eligible for the Homestead Exemption, the Veterans’ Exemption, or who is a widow(er), minor child or widowed parent of a vet, signed up to get those exemptions? Are there other programs offered by the state we’re not letting people know about? Can we create a privately funded short-term relief fund to help? There are plenty of people living in this town who would gladly contribute to such a fund.
Longer term, we also have options. The students in Waterville and Winslow are playing on some of the same teams and being taught by some of the same teachers. Maybe it’s time the older folks take a lesson from the younger ones and realize there are benefits to creating one school system. After all, we’ve been part of the same AOS for quite a while. What if we created some magnet schools within our expanded system?
Creating a fire district with those towns with whom we already have mutual aid agreements is another win-win. We already share a chief with Winslow. A fire district would apportion expenses among all residents, including the non-profits, and could result in lower mil rates all around.
We have the ability to shift the narrative from “What can we cut?” to “Why are we being forced to cut essentials when the state is sitting on a surplus?” This is a great area in which to live and work and we have the opportunity to make it even better. We have the ability to make our legislators work for us. Tell them that we deserve revenue sharing be restored to 5 percent. And, your councilors’ contact information is on the Friends of Waterville Schools website. Send them the message that short-sighted thinking is not the path to our prosperous future.
Karen Heck is a resident and former mayor of Waterville.