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MEA and Portland Mayor Oppose Governor's Proposed Education Spending Cuts
01/08/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

A curtailment order issued last month by Governor LePage includes a $12.5 million cut to public schools. It's a slice into budgets that some local administrators said they can't bear. Today the Maine Education Association and Portland mayor Michael Brennan held a press conference denouncing the order, saying the state is failing to live up to its obligation to fund public education and Maine's future.

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 Duration:
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The state of Maine is required to pay 55 percent of the cost of public education, but the state is falling short of that requirement, said Maine Education Association president Lois Kilby-Chesley. She said currently, the state pays less than 46 percent. To illustrate her point at the press conference, she held up a bill for $524 million dollars. That's how much the state owes schools, she said, from the past five years.

"Another way to look at it is Maine's property owners paid part of $524 million that the state was responsible for," said Kilby-Chesley. "The rest was cut from our childrens' classrooms."

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said his school district has been dealt a significant share of the pain, $10 million in state and federal funding since 2009. Under the curtailment, Brennan said Portland faces the largest cut of any school district, $870,000.

"We're going to have to look at some pretty significant issues, from teacher layoffs, to student services, to furloughs, to potentially reducing heat in classrooms in order to achieve these savings that are now going to be necessary due to this curtailment," said Brennan.

He said now halfway through the school year, he can't pass another budget, and Portland has just raised property taxes to account for previous cuts. He said the legislature needs to trim elsewhere and live up to its obligation to fund public education.

"The budget is always a question of priorities, not a question of revenue," said Brennan. "And what the governor is saying now is that K-12 education is not a priority, but is something he's willing to cut."

"You don't cut $30-some odd million out of state government in the middle of the year and not have some impact on education," said Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

He said the state is facing unprecedented fiscal challenges, and public schools carry one of the biggest price tags in the state budget, about $1 billion. Bowen said the situation isn't ideal, but urges critics to take a look at the big picture.

"Even with the curtailment, we're ahead of where we were last year, and we're well ahead of the budget we inherited from Governor Baldacci," said Bowen. "And there were substantial cuts under Governor Baldacci."

But MEA president Lois Kilby-Chesley said when she looks at the big picture, she sees school funding that's been gradually chiseled through an overall attack on public schools by Governor LePage.

"You berate our schools, you verbally attack our educators, you beat down the self-esteem of our students, you want to outsource our children's education, you cut our funding," said Kilby-Chesley.

Charter schools, under this curtailment, are exempt.

"They're in an incubator mode," said Rep. Ken Fredette (R-Newport). He added that now is not the time to pull the rug out from under the introduction of charter schools.

"So cutting them would take that incubator mode out, so I support the Governor's position on exempting them," said Fredette.

The cuts are not set in stone, the legislature will have an opportunity to make changes. Portland Mayor Michael Brennan suggests the state dip into its rainy day fund to lessen the blow, and Representative James Campbell (I-Newfield) plans to introduce a bill that would allocate revenue from the Oxford Casino to public education. In the interest of disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents some employees of the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.

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