School funding ballot issue discussed

BAR HARBOR — Opinions are divided on the referendum question concerning school funding set to appear on Maine ballots in November.

The citizen initiative Question 2 proposes adding a 3 percent tax on individual Maine taxable income above $200,000 to create a state fund to increase state support for K-12 schools. The initiative was put forward by the Maine Education Association.

At the Mount Desert Island Regional School System (MDIRSS) board meeting Monday, Rep. Brian Hubbell answered questions about the proposal. Superintendent Marc Gousse also distributed a “white paper” on Question 2 from the Maine School Management Association (MSMA).

The additional levy would mean a 10.5 percent rate on income above $200,000, which “would give Maine the highest rate in the country on that level of income and the second highest rate overall,” the white paper says.

Critics of the plan quoted in the MSMA document include Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock) and former Education Commissioner Jim Rier, who is working on the “No on Question 2” campaign for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.

“The business community already supports education in so many ways,” Langley said. “There’s a unique partnership there, but if this income tax hike goes through, my concern is it will create an adversarial relationship between business and the schools.”

Hubbell said the new fund would “backfill General Purpose Aid (GPA) and provide state subsidy for districts that need it,” adding that the funds “have to be used for direct instruction, rather than administration.”

He called the new fund “leverage” to “push the legislature further” toward the target of a 55 percent state share of school funding. But there also is a risk that a future legislature could reduce the GPA appropriation by the same amount the new tax raises, according to the MSMA and the Office of the Secretary of State.

Hubbell said he is “personally neutral on the tax side of it. I don’t see my perspective as being that different from the MSMA or the state chamber.”

Wealthier districts that are “minimum receivers” of state school funding like MDI, he said, would not directly benefit from the initiative.

He disagreed with a claim from Rier in the MSMA report that the initiative benefits wealthier communities and makes inequity between districts worse. “I don’t quite follow that argument,” he said.

Both the Maine School Boards Association and Maine School Superintendents Association have decided not to take a position on the referendum, according to the document, “recognizing that passage could mean different outcomes for different school administrative units.”

Board Chair Charlie Wray asked Hubbell if the legislature was ever going to “fix” the state’s school funding formula.

Hubbell defended the basic structure of the formula, saying “we will continue to tinker with it, both the tax side and the distribution side. But every session, we have new legislators propose that we scrap the formula and have the state spend a flat amount on every student in the state. I couldn’t support that,” he said.

MDI High School board Chair Ingrid Kachmar asked about special education funding, which is supposed to be 100 percent for “minimum receiver” districts. Hubbell said the state share did increase in the last budget, but even before the recession, it never rose above 83 percent.

“Exploding special education costs are a big issue statewide,” he said. “We haven’t yet seen the recommendations from the Department of Education’s review.”

The MDIRSS board decided to disband its legislative subcommittee this year, citing a heavy workload for other subcommittees. A single board member could serve as a liaison to Hubbell and the legislature, Wray said, or the board could create an ad hoc committee if needed.

Wray was reelected chair of the board at Monday’s meeting. Heather Jones of Mount Desert was elected vice chair and Robin Sue Tapley of Bar Harbor was elected secretary.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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