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MEA, Brennan push new legislature to restore school funding

AUGUSTA — The first day of a new Democratically controlled legislature began Tuesday with the state's teachers union and Portland Mayor Michael Brennan urging alternatives to Republican Gov. Paul LePage's recommended budget cuts to education.1-9-education-cuts-2
In early December, Gov. LePage issued a curtailment order, a slate of budget cuts for the fiscal year ending June 30 to cope with revenue shortfalls amounting to roughly $35.5 million. The Maine Education Association, a union representing about 25,000 members, protested the governor's call for nearly $13 million in cuts from the Department of Education budget as part of that curtailment order.
"Since fiscal year 2008-2009, five years ago, the state has failed to adequately fund (education) to the tune of $524 million," said Lois Kilby-Chesley, teacher and president of the MEA, during a Tuesday press conference. "That's a huge impact on our schools and on our students as well as on the middle class property taxpayer."
The curtailment order calls for a cut of $12.6 million statewide to K-12 public schools and a cut of $870,000 to the Portland school district, Portland city officials reported.
Kilby-Chesley urged legislators to "take a close look at education and funding failures of the past few years."
Flanked by charts showing five years of shortfalls in state education funding, she called it "ludicrous" to further reduce education funding in the current fiscal year.
Brennan said budgeting is a question of priorities, and suggested tapping a "rainy day fund" in the state budget or otherwise finding alternatives to cutting education.
In almost a $3 billion annual general fund budget, the state can find other ways to cope with declining revenues, he said.
"I'm disappointed to be here," said Brennan, a former state legislator who once chaired the Education Committee. "I would have preferred to be here on the first day of the legislature and talking about how we as a state move forward with education."
It's halfway through the Portland school district's budget year, so there's little time to stretch out funding reductions, Brennan noted. The cuts will not come without pain, he said.
"I either have to go back and look at increasing property taxes, or we have to cut services, lay off teachers, furlough teachers and look at ways that we will cut educational programming that is critical to our students," Brennan said. "I think the governor has another choice, and this is a question of priorities in the legislature."
Maine Rep. James J. Campbell Sr., I-Newfield, presented a couple of ideas to blunt the curtailment order. He suggested tapping revenues from the newly opened Oxford Casino as a way to shore up education funding.
"This bill here is an initiative delegating funds from revenues received from the state's share of income from the Oxford Casino as part of the additional funding that is needed to achieve the statutory commitment for the state to fund 55 percent of the total cost of kindergarten through grade 12 education," he said, reciting his proposal.
The bill would raise $83.7 million in additional funding in the next two fiscal years, he estimated.
Campbell said he also plans legislation to force the governor to identify funding for charter schools, a sore point with Democratic critics such as Brennan. The mayor has spoken out against Portland's new charter school, the Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, calling it a funding drain on public schools.
Others say charter schools bring much-needed customization and choice for parents and students. Supporters include J. Scott Moody, chief executive officer of the conservative think tank, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, who when interviewed Tuesday, said the MEA should exercise flexibility rather than "ignore the economic hardship that Mainers are facing today and shield themselves from budget cuts."
"The curtailment cuts are fundamentally being driven by Maine's lackluster economy that has yet to recover from the 'Great Recession,'" Moody said. "Given that Maine has to compete against 49 other states for business and jobs, our lack of economic competitiveness is due, in part, to an unsustainably large tax burden — including the property tax used to fund our schools."
The MEA, Moody said, should help school districts "find innovative and lower cost ways to better Maine schools and, consequently, student performance. Doing so does not require more taxpayer funding and can be achieved through a more customized educational system that better fits the needs of students. Such a customized system is slowly being created in Maine via charter schools and online education which, unfortunately, the MEA has been critical of. Without these changes Maine's schools and students will fall further behind other states that are already embracing customized educational systems."
LePage defended his curtailment order, noting that previous governors, including Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, enacted curtailments. Under Baldacci, from 2008 to 2010, curtailments totaled more than $180 million, LePage said.

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