A Comparison of School District Budget Spending in Maine

There’s a consistent complaint aimed at my school district: it’s spending too much. It’s out of control. It’s trying to compete with rich districts in southern Maine. And budget hawks come up with any number of statistics to try and support this. The budget is up millions in a few years! Our administration has gotten huge raises! Grab your pitchforks and torches!

On the flip side, I’ve heard school supporters continually claim we’re well below our peers, and that the district is very careful with its money.

Both sides can’t be right. So instead of buying into the hype on either side, I did what I wish everyone would do in cases like these: I looked into the matter myself. The Department of Education in Maine publishes all the relevant data. You can look at it all here. And with a bit of research, you can interpret that data by region, comparing it to a map of the districts here. For 2015-2016’s budget (the most recent published), I compared my district to each of the surrounding districts, going on the assumption that those districts closest to us would be the fairest peers to compare ourselves to. Here’s how it broke down

  • RSU 9 (Mount Blue): 10,277.85
  • RSU 58 (Philips/Strong): 10,947.24
  • RSU 74 (New Portland): 11,305.85
  • RSU 59 (Madison): 11,712.27
  • RSU 54: (Skowhegan) 11,111,91
  • RSU 18 (Belgrade): 10,504.59
  • RSU 38 (Mount Vernon): 11,127.93
  • Fayette: 9,980.68
  • RSU 73 (Jay): 11,094.05
  • RSU 10 (Rumford): 14,470.53
  • Average: 11,348.78

And here’s that in graph form:

Per Pupil

You’ll see numbers that don’t match that graph. It’s because they’re made up by people who want to tilt the scales one way or the other. The official Per Pupil Operating Costs are calculated by the state by excluding major capital outlay, debt service, transportation, and federal expenditure. Why is it calculated that way? Because it’s the best way to compare apples to apples.

For example, our district recently constructed or renovated two buildings. The state pays for the bulk of the cost (something like $5.5 million of the $6 million cost), but that isn’t reflected in the bottom line of our budget, which shows *all* costs of the district, including those covered by the state. To include that number when trying to compare per pupil operating costs would warp the data. It would make it appear Mount Blue is spending far more on its students than it actually is.

Which, of course, is why budget hawks try to do just that when they do their calculations. Try to tell them about the state figures, and they get all huffy, trying to discredit the state. “They don’t know what they’re doing. It’s all mumbo jumbo.” Well it isn’t.

We’re told our district’s budget has been skyrocketing while every other district’s in the state hasn’t. Again: not true. The average annual increases for the past fourteen years?

  • 3.2%
  • 4.0%
  • 5.0%
  • 2.9%
  • 1.0%
  • -0.3%
  • 0.4%
  • 2.6%
  • 6.1%
  • 6.5%
  • 5.7%
  • 5.5%
  • 4.3%
  • 5.4%

The dip in numbers is around the Great Recession. Which was the last time the school board was under fire, except back then it was because they were trying to cut the budget too much(!) It’s just getting more expensive to teach kids in an age of rapidly advancing technology and rising utility costs. I wish it weren’t so, but it is. And that applies across the board.

The fact is, every single time I try to look into what’s actually happening in the district, I discover the school board has been open and honest in its presentation, and the detractors have been warping and misleading the public. Their whole campaign to reduce the budget is built on misinformation and outright lies. (What’s the difference? I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt when they first state something. That’s just misinformation. But when they’ve been corrected and shown the accurate information and persist in spreading that misinformation? Then they’re just lying.)

Don’t buy what they’re selling. Vote no today!

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