Mount Desert Islander: Proposed laws seen as threats to public education system

Proposed laws seen as threats to public education system
Dick Broom, Mount Desert Islander
April 21, 2011

BAR HARBOR — A number of measures the Legislature is considering this session would harm public schools, according to members of the legislative subcommittee of the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) board.

At the board’s April 11 meeting, members cited proposals that they said would divert funding from public schools or otherwise weaken public education in Maine.

One of those bills would exempt low-to-moderate-income, yearround residents who are 67 or older from paying the portion of their property taxes that would go to their local public schools.

If that bill becomes law, a person with an annual income of less than $25,000 and whose assets, excluding a homestead, are valued at less than $100,000 would be eligible for the full exemption. An income of between $25,000 and $75,000 and assets worth no more than $200,000 would entitle a person to an exemption of half the amount of the property taxes that otherwise would go for public education.

“It’s a total disregard for the established system,” said Judy Sproule, chairman of the MDIRSS legislative subcommittee.

Board member Charlie Farley said, “Any time money is taken out of taxpayer funds that would normally go to the public school, I’m a little bit worried that we’ll see parents making the decision [to send their children to private schools].”

A bill that has been introduced in the state Senate would allow income tax credits of up to $2,500 for the tuition that parents pay to send a child to a private school. The House version of that bill would allow tax credits of up to $2,000.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Taxation voted April 14 that the House bill “ought not to pass.”

A related bill would provide income tax credits for contributions to tax-exempt organizations that provide scholarships for students at private schools.

“The strategy is to make an endrun around the restriction on using public money for religious schools,” said MDIRSS board chairman Brian Hubbell.

Legislative subcommittee member Gail Marshall said some of the bills currently before the Legislature would undermine the state’s traditional commitment to public education. She said their impact could be as far-reaching as the 2008 school consolidation law.

Mr. Hubbell and other board members have testified at legislative hearings on a few of the education-related bills. They emphasized that they always make it clear they are testifying as individuals, not as representatives of the board, unless the board has authorized them to speak on its behalf.

The MDIRSS board on April 11 formally took positions on several education bills and authorized members of the legislative subcommittee to testify on behalf of the board on of any of those bills.

Extended work hours

A bill that would lift restrictions on the number of hours students 16 and older could work during the school year was criticized at a legislative hearing April 15 by Brian Hubbell, chairman of the Mount Desert Regional School System (MDIRSS) board.

The board had voted at its April 11 meeting to oppose the bill, which is titled “An Act to Enhance Access to the Workplace for Minors.”

“With insufficient time already in the school week, we oppose having students … further torn by additional obligations made by employers,” Mr. Hubbell told members of the Legislature’s Joint
Committee on Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development.

Current state law bars students younger than 18 from working more than 20 hours a week while school is in session. The proposed law would allow students 16 and older to work unlimited hours.

Students younger than 16 could work as many as four hours a day and 18 hours a week during the school year.

The bill also would establish a sub-minimum “training wage” of $5.25 an hour for the first six months of employment for trainees or high school students younger than 20. Maine’s current
minimum wage is $7.50 an hour.

Mr. Hubbell said at the hearing on the bill that if students face “conflicts and diversions as a pool of cut-rate labor, their immediate chances for success at school will be diminished and, in consequence, their long-term prospects will be proportionally
weakened.

“The costs of college already strain most students and their families to the limit,” he said. “They need and deserve fair wages for their employment.”

Mr. Hubbell noted that Gov. Paul LePage has said he intends to make education in Maine the best in the country.

“To accomplish this, our students must be dedicated to their schooling,” he told the legislative committee. “School must be their full-time job.”