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Battle Brewing Over Use of Maine Casino Profits for Education Initiatives
04/05/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

The political battle over school funding continues in Augusta Monday with a public hearing before the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. On the agenda: a bill that would force the state to use revenues from the Oxford Casino to fund 55 percent of the total cost of K-12 education - something voters approved several years ago that still hasn't happened. Jay Field has more.

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Maine's casino law requires that a portion of the profits from gaming go to general purpose aid for public education, or GPA. Next fiscal year, the state is projecting it will receive roughly $13 million from the Oxford Casino. David-Connerty Marin is spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education.

"Almost all of those funds are going to go out to schools," he says. "Now, unlike some of GPA, much of GPA, where the districts can spend it however they'd like, these would be targeted funds."

The LePage administration wants to spend that money on key education reform priorities, like a new teacher and principal evaluation system, moving districts to a proficiency-based high school diploma, increasing support for severely underperforming schools and expanding school choice options.

"These are projects that are required in law, some of them," Connerty-Marin says. "The teacher evaluation and the proficiency-based diploma are both required by law. Districts have to do that. And I imagine that districts would be very pleased to know that there are actually funds in the budget to allow them to implement the law they've been required to implement."

Pleased is not the reaction coming from the president of the Maine Education Association. "Proficiency-based diploma, the teacher evaluation or educator effectiveness - whichever name you want to give to it - those are pet projects," says Lois Kilbey Chesley.

Kilbey Chesley says it's not appropriate to use casino money for these targeted education initiatives, at a time of severe financial distress for public schools. Her organization represents the state's roughly 25,000 public school teachers. She says the gambling profits should be distributed to districts to use as they see fit, as Maine's casino law intended.

"That's what Mainers voted for, and so we believe it should go directly to education and not for other purposes," Kilbey Chesley says.

Back in December, school districts across the state were hit with a more than $12 million curtailment. And education funding in Gov. Paul LePage's next two-year budget is projected to be flat.

"He's violating the law: The law states that we fund these at 55 percent. I voted for it and it passed," says Rep. Jim Campbell. Campbell is referring to the 2004 initiative passed by Maine voters requiring the state to cover 55 percent of the funding needed to pay for K-12 education.

Campbell, a Newfield independent, is sponsoring a bill that would force the administration to use the Oxford Casino profits to ensure that Maine reaches this threshold. "First things first," he says. "Fund our schools and have some respect for our teachers. And fund them at 55 percent and then go from there. That's my answer."

The Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee will hold a public hearing on Campbell's bill on Monday.

Editor's Note: In the interest of full disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents some staff, including reporters, at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network.



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