BAR HARBOR — Three members of the state Legislature who represent Mount Desert Island Regional School System towns met Monday night with the school system board to talk about the challenges of funding public education, particularly special education.
Maine Commissioner of Education Pender Makin joined the discussion by phone.
Several members of the board described how it is becoming harder to provide adequate funding for the schools without overburdening local taxpayers.
Board member Ingrid Kachmar of Southwest Harbor said Pemetic Elementary has a budget of roughly $4 million and that about 25 percent of that is for special education. She said the Southwest Harbor school board typically tries to limit budget increases to no more than 4 percent.
“But this year we are facing between an 11 and 12 percent increase,” Kachmar said. “So, we’re having to put off important expenditures. We’re having to defer maintenance, but there are some maintenance things we can’t put off. We’ve found some creative, alternative ways to approach these cost increases, but it just means we’re kicking the can down the road.”
All of the towns in the MDI school district are “minimum receivers” of state subsidies, which means they only get state funds for special education. The state Legislature has set a goal of funding 55 percent of schools’ special ed costs, but has never met that goal. However, the percentage of state support has increased over the past few years, from 30 percent in 2016-17 to 45 percent this year.
Rep. Brian Hubbell, whose legislative district includes Bar Harbor and Mount Desert, said, “The state has valiantly been increasing investment in public education, yet still has not reached the 55 percent, so we are continuing that effort.”
Three years ago, the MDI district schools received a total of just over $1.1 million in state subsidies. This year, that number is nearly $2.3 million.
Still, local school board members say that isn’t enough to meet the increasing needs for special education and the rising costs.
Susan Allen, another Southwest Harbor school board member, said that until last year’s Town Meeting she had never been fearful that voters would not approve the school budget. She said that, as a board member, she understands the state funding formula for schools and the mandate from the federal government to provide special education.
“But we’re having a hard time relaying that information to the taxpayers, and because of that, we are losing credibility and their trust,” Allen said.
“We present this outrageous special ed budget, which represents a very small number of kids, and angry townspeople want details [about the children and their families] that we can’t give them, of course.
“We try our best to educate the people we represent, but I feel like we’re falling shorter every year.”
Hubbell said federal requirements for providing special education, without the funding to support it, is a big part of the problem.
“I think that really is at the root of a lot of [problems] that we’re feeling statewide,” he said. “We’re hearing this all across the state, believe me. I encourage you to contact your federal representatives and communicate to them the importance of this.”
Makin said the Maine Department of Education has discussed the need for greater federal support with members of the state’s congressional delegation and the U.S. Department of Education.
“I can tell you that people are aware that funding is a critical issue right now,” she said.
Makin also said that, in talking about special education costs, everyone should be careful not to make scapegoats of children with special needs and their families.
“It’s important that we talk about our students as our students,” she said. “They are our kids and our families. They are struggling to cope with unimaginable challenges in some cases.
“It doesn’t take away the pain of the requirements and expenses, but I feel it’s important to say that they are all our kids.”
Hubbell said a lot of the pressure that schools are experiencing is spillover from societal problems that communities all over the state are dealing with.
“There are a lot of areas … where the state really has failed in relation to early education services, access to special services, all of the social stresses of which you are all well aware,” Hubbell said.
School Superintendent Marc Gousse said some of those problems really began hitting the schools hard in the past year.
“The social stress, the emotional trauma that has cascaded into our schools is significant, and I am hearing that from my colleagues all over the state,” he said.
Hubbell said that addressing some of those problems will be a focus of the Legislature in the session that has just begun. And he noted that the state Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services are starting to work more closely together to identify and address needs.
He again acknowledged that the state has been failing some of its children.
“The evidence of that is starting to show up in these hard issues of budgets and in you starting to lose the trust of your communities,” he told the school board.
Before being elected to the Legislature in 2012, Hubbell served for 10 years on the Bar Harbor school board and the school system board.
“One of the things that made serving on this board a privilege and a pleasure for me was understanding that this was a community that really cared deeply about and was committed to public education,” he said. “It was always a core part of our identity. I know how fragile that is and the constant work that everybody … has to do to maintain that trust and goodwill.
“It’s not something that any of us should take for granted,” Hubbell said. “And I am well aware of how financing problems can really rattle that.”
He and Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth), whose legislative district includes Trenton, pointed out that, while education costs have been going up, the Legislature has taken action over the past couple of years to lower costs for taxpayers in other areas.
“We have done things at the state level to reduce your property tax burden, so that school increase shouldn’t feel as painful,” Grohoski said. “It also helps that we’ve increased the homestead exemption. We have to wrap it all together and tell the whole story.”
Also meeting with the school system board Monday night was Rep. Genevieve McDonald, whose district includes Southwest Harbor, Tremont, Swan’s Island, Cranberry Isles and Frenchboro.