Editorial: Reaching 55 percent

In 2003, Maine voters directed state government to fund 55 percent of the total cost of delivering local kindergarten to grade 12 public education.

For the current 2019 fiscal year, the state contribution of $1.1 billion toward the total cost of K-12 education, including the cost of essential programs and services (EPS), plus the state contribution to teacher retirement, retired teacher health insurance and life insurance, is 53.35 percent.

With a stable economy, achieving the 55 percent funding level is within reach of the Legislature to finally deliver.

Sixteen years after the mandate was adopted, the Legislature is poised to ignite a debate about what costs are included and what costs are excluded in the calculation defining the 55 percent.

Since 2013, the current costs (referred to as normal cost) associated with teacher retirement benefits are split — 50 percent state-funded and 50 percent locally funded. In addition, the state budget funds 100 percent of past unfunded liabilities.

So it is of interest to learn that state Rep. Michael Brennan (D-Portland) has introduced LD 427, “An Act to Require the State to Fund Teacher Retirement.”

If adopted, Rep. Brennan’s proposal would require that the state pay the entire amount of the normal costs of retirement and continue to pay 100 percent of past unfunded liabilities.

It would no longer allow any of that funding to count toward the state’s 55 percent requirement. The effect is to knock down the current actual share of state support from 53.35 percent to 50 percent.

Brennan’s proposal moves the taxpayer support of teacher retirement costs outside of plain view, artificially inflates the funding gap and derails the ability to transparently achieve the full funding mandate.

Considering that teachers and school personnel are employees hired by the local school unit and that the employment contracts are negotiated locally between the elected school board members of the individual school units and the employees’ collective bargaining representatives, we believe the current model of shared funding is fair and reasonable and that state contributions toward normal retirement costs should be recognized as satisfying a portion of the 55 percent commitment.

The current practice of including employee benefit costs is a universally applied reporting standard for all large employers. It is transparent and allows the public to view the inflow of all taxpayer revenue in support of schools as well as the outflow of spending for programs to deliver education.

It is time for the Legislature to fulfill this commitment. LD 427 stands in the way of that fulfillment. For the first time, policy makers can prioritize the 2019-2020 academic year for full funding.

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