School was my hustle

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  January 24, 2007

What a relief to discover that solving the problem of high property taxes in Maine isn’t complicated. Thanks to Governor John Baldacci, we now know it only requires the elimination of 126 high-paying jobs.

That’s right. Just fire most of the state’s school superintendents, and property taxes will drop faster than SAT scores.

According to Baldacci, many Maine school districts aren’t abiding by a voluntary spending cap (a cap that would have been mandatory if the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, which Baldacci opposed, had passed). His solution: consolidate the state’s schools from 152 districts to just 26 over the next three years, saving $241 million.

That comes to roughly $635,000 per displaced super per year. I want one of those jobs.

Actually, the savings aren’t all from superintendents’ salaries. Figures supplied by the state Department of Education (motto: Supplying Figures Is Mostly What We Do) show the bulk of it — $124 million — will come from cutting central-office space and staff. Assuming every super gets an annual salary-and-benefits package totaling $130,000 (most receive substantially less), that amounts to about $200,000 for rent, lights, paper clips, and flunkies.

That could be the case in wealthy towns (Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth) and wacky cities (Portland, Lewiston), but probably not in places where school board members have an aversion to forcible applications of tar and feathers.

The rest of the savings, approximately $117 million, is dependent on what accountants refer to as steaming piles of bull doody.

According to the education department, schools would save over $17 million a year on toilet paper and related supplies, because the newly consolidated districts would get bulk discounts. Discounts which, for some reason, the old districts can’t get. Even though they use tons of TP.

Special education costs would decline by $21 million a year, because districts would no longer contract with therapists at an hourly rate. Instead, they’d hire therapists and pay them salaries and benefits. Which everybody knows is cheaper.

Transportation would cost $8 million a year less, because . . . well, just because.

Best of all, state officials predict teachers’ salaries, particularly in small towns, would go up as new contracts are negotiated, thereby reducing costs by . . . er, never mind.

Not all of the quarter billion dollars in savings would go to lowering property taxes. Under the governor’s plan, some of it would be spent hiring new principals, so every school has one. Every school would need one, because somebody has to do all the administrative work superintendents used to do. Also, if there’s any money left over, Baldacci intends to buy laptops for high school students, because providing laptops for middle school students has done wonders for their test scores. If by “wonders” you mean “made them lower.”

Time for a dose of reality.

Property taxes are not too high because the state has too many school superintendents. Property taxes are too high because property owners are forced to pay for too many things that have nothing to do with owning a house, such as schools, social services, county government, and a host of state-imposed mandates on municipalities. Until the governor and the Legislature manage to grasp that fact, whatever they propose in the guise of property tax relief amounts to squat.

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