LePage’s task force to fix Maine schools starts in secret

Good morning from Augusta, where Gov. Paul LePage’s blue ribbon commission to study education funding and performance in Maine is gathered for its inaugural meeting at the Blaine House.

The meeting kicked off at 8:30 a.m. at the Blaine House, but the public was not invited and reporters weren’t allowed in. I received no official notification of this morning’s meeting. LePage Communications Director Peter Steele said Monday morning’s meeting, which will include remarks by the governor, is closed to the media because it is “just an informal, get-to-know-you gathering in a relaxed setting before the commission starts its work at a later date.”

The meeting is to include presentations by Mike Allen, a tax expert for Maine Revenue Services and the Department of Administrative and Financial Services, State Economist Amanda Rector and others, including Deputy Education Commissioner Bill Beardsley.

As we discussed Friday in the Daily Brief, details about LePage’s education agenda over the next couple of years are likely to come into focus through this commission. It was created earlier this year as a compromise in a bill that sent $15 million in new education money to public schools to fill part of a gap created by lower property values across Maine.

The agenda refers to the presentation or discussion of a “grand bargain” but the details around that are unclear at the moment. Just a guess here, but I’m thinking it might have to do with the creation of a statewide labor contract for teachers and education administrators, which LePage has repeatedly said is a top-shelf goal on his education reform wish-list.

School districts in Maine negotiate their teacher contracts at the local level. That means there are differences from town to town in pay and benefits. Though there are arguments to be made about the merits of a single contract that covers all Maine educators — similar to widespread contracts that cover state workers — it would be difficult to implement. Local communities have long sparred with state government over the erosion of local contract and implementing a statewide contract would presumably adjust some teachers’ pay up and down.

Whatever path forward is forged by the commission will require input from legislative leaders of both political parties, teachers, municipal managers and representatives from the State Board of Education and Maine Charter School Commission. Also on the 15-member commission are James H. Page, chancellor of the University of Maine system, and Derek P. Langhauser, president of the Maine Community College system.

Democratic Sen. Justin Alfond, a former Education Committee member and current Senate minority leader, is on the commission. He said this morning that the LePage administration has been firm about the privacy of today’s meeting.

“I’ve been communicating almost daily with the LePage administration about the blue ribbon commission and the public’s access and it’s very concerning where they’re landing,” said Alfond. “Right now, from what I understand, the public will not be allowed in nor will elected members of the Legislature or the media.”

Alfond said he is hopeful that given the caliber and breadth of the commission members, that meaningful and data-based negotiations can take place that result in a strong package of legislation for the 127th Legislature to consider when it convenes next year.

“I’m sure the governor will bring up a lot of the ideas that he’s brought up in the past,” said Alfond. “I’m willing to listen but I’m always going to go back to ensuring that we have good data, good examples from other states and that we are ensuring the continuation of local control for the education of our students.”

The commission is scheduled to produce a preliminary report by late July of this year. — Christopher Cousins 

Bruce Poliquin and others join congressional heroin task force

Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin has announced that he will join a bipartisan task force to curtail the raging heroin epidemic, which kicked off this morning in Manchester, New Hampshire

The hearing, titled “Investigating the Heroin Epidemic and Its Impacts on the Northeast,” will focus on lawn enforcement and treatment strategies, according to a written statement from Poliquin. Among the task force’s intentions is to present a package of 15 bills they deem most likely to gather enough support in Congress to be enacted.

Among today’s presenters is Michael Crabtree, chief deputy of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department, and Pat Kimball, executive director of Wellspring, an organization that helps addicts and people with co-occurring mental health disorders in Bangor. — Christopher Cousins

Police chief to LePage: Narcan veto ‘only shows how uninformed you are’

Milo police Chief Damien Pickel is putting public pressure on Gov. Paul LePage regarding the governor’s veto of LD 1547, a bill that would allow over-the-counter access to Naloxone Hydrochloride, an opioid overdose antidote known as Narcan. LePage made national headlines by stating in his veto letter that Narcan “does not truly save lives; it merely extends them until the next overdose.”

Pickel posted on the department’s Facebook page that the veto “only shows how uninformed you are.”

“It does save lives,” wrote Pickel. “It’s not a safety net for the addict that will ‘perpetuate the use of heroin.’ When an addict is overdosing, they lack the skills to administer it themselves. In fact, an addict hates Narcan because it reverses the effects of the opioid and they immediately go into withdrawal. You should listen to your police, fire, EMS and medical professionals before you make any further uninformed statements. We’re getting it done on a daily basis. We save lives, whether you’re rich or poor, black, white, green or purple, addict or sober.”

The Legislature will consider LePage’s veto of LD 1547, which was sponsored by Assistant House Democratic Leader Sara Gideon of Freeport, on Friday. — Christopher Cousins

Reading list

Best of Maine’s Craigslist

  • A firefighter was in line at the Westbrook Hannaford when he saw a “cute runner” ahead of him. “U had blue and green spandex on and hot as hell,” he says. “U bought a Pepsi and some carrots.” That narrows it down.
  • Somebody is no fan of Maine’s state-regulated medical marijuana system. He “can’t understand how people are still such b—–s about weed and isn’t not interested in a medical card. “F–k the card…I don’t need permission to smoke weed.” He would like an ounce, though.
  • A Missed Connections post is headlined “shep.” I thought they were talking to me! “I don’t want a world without you in it,” it reads, “there’s no unicorn glittering magic.” Alas, I have none of that. — Michael Shepherd
Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.