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LePage's Plan for $1M Legal Fund for Charter Schools Sparks Outrage
03/25/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A wave of opposition is building in Augusta to a plan by Republican Gov. Paul LePage to set aside $1 million in state education funding to set up a legal defense fund for charter schools. Democrats, including Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, question the need for such a fund. And public school advocates say they are outraged. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Perhaps no one was more surprised to hear about the million-dollar Charter Schools Commission Defense Fund than Janna LaPoint, the commission chair. She says she first heard about the plan at a legislative subcomittee hearing.

"It certainly came out of the blue for us," she says, "and I would assume that it's between the Department of Education, Commissioner Bowen and the governor, because there was no contact made to us ahead of time about it, and I sat in the meeting of appropriations and went 'What?!'"

LePage's Education Commissioner Steve Bowen told members of the Appropriations Committee last week that the money would be transferred from the $895 million general purpose aid account that goes to K-12 education, and that the purpose was to "ensure that adequate legal representation is available for the Department of Education, State Board of Education and Charter School Commission."

"It's very odd," says state Rep. Mike Carey. Carey says he tried to question Bowen about the issue last week without success. "I can't recall an example where a governor without articulating any reason for it has decided to take money away from school kids for a court fight that nobody appears to say is necessary," he says.

Carey says the charter school commission has given no indications of a possible legal fight. Others are criticizing the administration's decision to use dedicated funding for public schools to prop up the charter schools program. In his last supplemental budget, LePage cut state funding for public schools -- but not for charter schools.

At the Maine School Management Association, Executive Director Connie Brown says that the proposed $1 million transfer comes at a time when schools are trying to absorb reduced state funding, and the shifting of costs such as teacher retirements onto local school districts.

"Now to hear that the commissioner has proposed what seems to be an outrageous sum of money for legal defense funds for five charter schools in Maine is pretty much an insult to public education, and begs the question: why?" Brown says.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills says she has not been contacted by the LePage administration about any potential legal problems involving the charter schools. Even if majority Democrats do choose to allow the transfer of funds, Mills says she has to approve any outside counsel request sought by the governor.

Maine Senate President Justin Alfond says he will oppose efforts to transfer the funds. "This million dollars should be for our schools, it should be for our students, it should for our teachers, it should be for our public schools now -- and they need it," Alfond says.

Education and budget spokesmen for the governor's office did not return calls to MPBN by airtime. Gov. LePage is on vacation in Jamaica.


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