How Maine’s teacher pay raise bill could drive up local property taxes in three years

Two sponsors of L.D. 898, Maine’s teacher pay raise bill; Rep. David McCrea (D – Fort Fairfield), Sen. Rebecca Millett (D – Cumberland). Photos courtesy Maine Legislature website.

AUGUSTA – You would be hard pressed to find a lawmaker in Augusta who would tell you that all teachers make enough money, but lawmakers are split over how to fix it and some are deeply concerned about causing local property tax increases in the future.

Senator Rebecca Millett (D – Cumberland) is currently pushing a bill through the legislature that would immediately increase the minimum salary of Maine teachers from $30,000 to $40,000 per year and requires that after two years that teacher must receive an incremental pay increase that moves them above the minimum salary.

Millett’s bill would use state taxpayer dollars to fund the increase in teacher salaries for local school districts at 100% for the first year, 66% in the second year and 33% in the third year. That is where some lawmakers and others have concerns.

They say that this structure will leave local property taxpayers holding the bag for an increasingly large share of the bill each year after this year. Without a plan to fund the pay raises long-term, the raise will be great for the politicians to tout on the campaign trail next year, but will ultimately drive up property taxes, they say.

The Maine House and Senate have both approved the proposal, but in the House a roll call last Thursday fell mostly along party lines with two “Independent” lawmakers voting against the bill as well.

A fiscal note from the Legislature’s non-partisan office has now been attached to the bill that says, “Unless the required funding for fiscal year 2020-21 is approved and enacted by the 129th Legislature, either in the 2020-2021 biennial budget or other legislation, the full cost of this measure will be borne by SAU’s. For any future fiscal year that the State does not fund the additional cost of this minimum salary requirement SAU’s will be required to fund 100% of the cost.”

Of course, concern over potential friction between local property taxes and teacher salaries also has regional variations. A lawmaker who represents a school district that already pays teachers well above the average is much less likely to worry about driving up local property taxes than others.

Supporters of increasing teacher salaries point to the need to attract and retain high quality teachers in lower income districts and say a competitive statewide wage would greatly help in that pursuit.

Those who are skeptical point to the consequences of wage compression, which suggests that wages for all other teachers will have to rise to fairly compensate them above the new minimum salary, which will be increased by a whopping 33%.

They worry that even if the state can afford such a large minimum teacher salary increase all at once, that in a few years all the additional pay raises that are required to compensate experienced teachers at a fair level above that new rate will cause costs to spiral out of control. Combined with a declining contribution from the state in the third year, and they say it could lead to spikes in local property taxes.

Still, it looks like Maine’s longstanding challenge of attracting and retaining high quality teachers is on the radar in Augusta. Now it falls on lawmakers in Augusta to find a way to pay for it, or to explain why they handed a huge bill to property taxpayers, who in some parts of the state say they can’t afford much more.

According to the Maine Department of Educations Data Warehouse, the average Maine classroom teacher salary is $52,829. Following are the average salaries for the various classifications of teachers in Maine, followed by the number (in parentheses) of those teachers Maine DOE says are employed in Maine’s public schools:

Classroom Teacher: $52,829 (12,039)
English Language Learner Teacher: $54,187 (147)
Gifted and Talented (GT) Teacher: $57,760 (73)
Literacy Specialist: $61,278 (147)
Special Education Teacher: $51,259 (2088)
Substitute Teacher – Longterm: $25,435 (28)
Title 1 Teacher: $54,751 (162)

The bill’s fiscal note also says that the cost to local school districts for teacher retirement contributions will rise by just over $400,000 in fiscal year 2020-21 and that cost will be paid by local school districts.

The proposal also calls for legislation to be passed by the legislature in the future to provide additional funding, but there is no guarantee that will happen.

You can read the original bill by clicking here.

You can read the bill’s fiscal note by clicking here.

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