LePage: One school superintendent per county would still be too many

Good morning from Augusta, where today’s main event will feature verbal sparring over education funding. Gov. Paul LePage will hold a news conference on the issue, followed closely by a second event that has been organized by the Maine Education Association and the Stand Up for Students coalition.

LePage previewed his argument this morning during a radio interview on WVOM, though his comments were basically a review for anyone who has been listening to the governor speak about what he thinks is wrong with public education in Maine. His primary goal is to reduce the number of superintendents for Maine’s roughly 175,000 students from 147 to a dozen.

“We’re very top-heavy and we need to shrink the number of superintendents,” said LePage. “Maine probably needs about a dozen superintendents. One superintendent per county would be too much in Maine.”

LePage has put a plan in motion to consolidate school administration structures and cut down on the number of superintendents but it requires buy-in from local school boards — if his plan makes it through the Legislature.

He has proposed that the state stop paying anything for school administrators on one hand and disburse competitive grants on the other hand for schools to use for costs associated with consolidation. Earlier this month, his administration awarded seven grants totaling $2.7 million and LePage is asking for another $11 million over the next two years to award more.

But there is hard pushback against LePage on that idea as well as the funding levels he has proposed for Maine schools. LePage said today that he has increased funding for public education in every year of his tenure. While that’s true, most of the increase is due to the Legislature adding tens of millions of dollars of education money to LePage’s budget proposals, which LePage then vetoed for a variety of reasons. LePage has proposed modest increases that education professionals say have failed to keep up with the increasing cost of public education.

In addition, LePage has pushed some education costs, such as teacher retirement premiums, to the local level — meaning they are now underwritten primarily with property taxes — and his plan to eliminate state funding for administrators would add to that. School subsidies have also suffered because under LePage, the state has diverted or diluted money from the general purpose aid funding formula to create charter schools, for example. LePage argues that public charter schools should be funded like any other school but the fact is, doing so spreads the same or very similar pool of money around to more schools.

So while LePage can correctly assert that, in raw dollars, he has increased state aid to education, individual school districts counter with the fact that they are receiving a smaller portion of the state education aid pie.

There are divisions in the Legislature over school funding. Democrats, for the most part, are interested in preserving Question 2 from the November 2016 ballot, which starting next year will route approximately $150 million a year to classroom instruction by creating a new 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000 a year. Republican leaders have recently come out firmly against Question 2, though some, including Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, have said they want to increase school funding out of the General Fund while scrapping Question 2.

LePage’s news conference today, which is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at the State House, appears to be the beginning of an executive branch policy messaging blitz as the Legislature creeps closer to decisions on his biennial state budget proposal. The governor said he will hold news conferences on Thursday and again next week on taxes and energy policy.

“Those are the three things that are preventing Maine from becoming a prosperous state,” he said. — Christopher Cousins

Quick hits

  • Bernie Sanders and the Democratic National Committee kicked off a national tour in Maine on Monday. The Vermont senator is lending his progressive weight behind a Democratic National Committee junket of states where Democrats fared poorly in the 2016 election. The tour kicked off on Monday at the State Theatre in Portland. The campaign-style rally headlined by Sanders and DNC Chairman Tom Perez didn’t cover much new ground. Sanders called for Democrats to “radically transform” the party into a grassroots organization that competes in every state. Here’s the full video, including speeches from U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and Maine Senate Minority Leader Troy Jackson of Allagash, but The Washington Post’s three-minute version is more convenient. — Michael Shepherd
  • LePage issued a preemptive veto threat on ‘death with dignity’ bills in the Maine Legislature. Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, is leading his second effort in two years to make Maine the seventh state to allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to dying patients under certain conditions. His proposal is still before a legislative committee, but LePage said Tuesday on WVOM that he’d veto it, saying it amounts to “human beings passing judgment on who can live and who can die” and “I don’t believe in it.” — Michael Shepherd and Christopher Cousins
  • Bruce Poliquin kicked off his 2018 campaign with a best-in-New England fundraising haul. The Republican from Maine’s 2nd District reported raising just over $629,000 in 2017’s first quarter, which The Boston Globe said was the highest total raised among House members from New England. The 2nd District leans slightly Democratic by party registration, but Poliquin will be tough to unseat in his second re-election race. Only one Democrat — Jonathan Fulford, a two-time Maine Senate candidate from Monroe — is publicly considering a 2018 run at Poliquin. — Michael Shepherd
  • Angus King is rallying veterans behind his VA appeals bill. Independent U.S. Sen. Angus King will meet with veterans at the William J. Rogers Post 153 American Legion in Auburn to raise awareness for the Department of Veterans Affairs Appeals Modernization Act, which King co-sponsored. The act would improve the VA’s benefits compensation appeals process, which King says has some claimants waiting 8.5 years to complete. There are more than 450,000 appeals currently pending nationwide. A Government Accountability Office study recommends more staffing, a reform of the process and a technology update. King’s stop in auburn is scheduled for 2 p.m. — Christopher Cousins
  • What do U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and Patrick Dempsey have in common? They, along with educator Geoffrey Canada and artist Wanda Corn, will receive honorary degrees from Bates College next month. Collins, Canada and Dempsey will receive Doctor of Humane Letters degrees and Corn will receive a Doctor of Fine Arts degree. Collins is being honored, in part, for scoring among the most bipartisan U.S. senators and for her work on numerous issues during her time in the Senate. To read about her and the other recipients, check out the Bates College website. — Christopher Cousins

Today in A-town

The Legislature is in, with the House set to vote on a trio of campaign finance bills that would make candidates running ads paid for with Clean Election funds include a disclosure saying taxpayer funds were used on them, bar the use of Clean Election funds for post-election parties, and mandate that campaign mailings be sent to ethics regulators when sent to the public.

The Senate will vote on whether to override a LePage veto of a bill aiming to protect living organ donors’ insurance coverage. The House crushed the veto 146-0 last week.

Amid a dense afternoon committee schedule:

  • The Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee will take testimony on a handful of bills related to processes around the collection and submission of citizen-initiated referendums.
  • Scofflaws alert: If you like to park illegally in handicapped spaces, or your vehicle is towed a lot, or you like to drive your all-terrain vehicle illegally on public roads, or you don’t recognize the signs of human trafficking on the roadways, or your license is under suspension, you might want to listen in on the Transportation Committee. Bills affecting each of those situations will be introduced.
  • In the Insurance and Financial Services Committee, a bill that will be difficult to enact given the makeup of the Maine Legislature will be introduced by Rep. Joyce McCreight, D-Harpswell. It is designed to improve access to prescription birth control. CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the bill would require insurance companies to cover FDA-approved contraceptive supplies without imposing any cost-sharing on customers.
  • The Energy, Utilities and Technology committee will take testimony on two bills that seek to make changes to Maine’s renewable energy portfolio. One proposes to keep it the same until 2027; the other seeks to “update” the standards. Both are concept drafts with no language in them yet. The amount of renewable energy required in Maine’s energy profile has been a potent source of disagreement in the Legislature.
  • The Education Committee will take testimony on a bid to lift the limit of 10 charter schools in Maine; the Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee could take votes on several bills related to deer and moose hunting.
  • The Health and Human Services Committee has some heavy votes scheduled on funding and eligibility for social services such as General Assistance and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs.
  • Our favorite bill title of the day (without reading the bill itself because we don’t want to ruin our probably sick and dirty but sort of funny thoughts) is LD 175, An Act Regarding the Regulation of Rabbit Production for Local Consumption. That one is up for a work session at 2 p.m. in the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee. Here’s their soundtrack.Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd

Reading list

When suddenly they want the paper and not the web

As everyone knows, newspapers are changing. Personally, I often wonder when publications like the Bangor Daily News will stop calling themselves newspapers. After all, our focus and that of many of our peers has shifted heavily to our online product as readers refocus their preferences from paper to news that comes to them over the internet.

But hey, most of us still say we’re going to “tape” our favorite show or listen to our favorite “record” even though no one has used videotape or records for decades. “Newspaper” is probably here to stay for a while no matter what happens to the industry.

The Daily Brief you’re reading right now — whether it’s at bangordailynews.com or it arrived in its newsletter form in your email inbox — is an example. More people than ever are reading the Bangor Daily News through one of its online products.

Then late last week, we received a response from a Daily Brief reader who bucked that trend.

“Do not want emails,” she wrote. “Just want paper delivered to our home. Thank you.”

Those lines were a whisper against a deafening din, but came across loud and clear. Anita, tell us your address and we’ll check with the circulation department immediately. We just won’t be able to deliver your soundtrack that way. — Christopher Cousins

With tips, pitches, questions or feedback, email us at politics@bangordailynews.com. If you’re reading The Daily Brief on the BDN’s website or were forwarded it, click here to get Maine’s only newsletter on state politics and policy delivered via email every weekday morning.

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.