Feb 11-15: four dilemmas and a decent compromise

Dear Friends in House District 35,

As things are beginning to roll now in the legislature, rather than make a comprehensive report I’ll just outline some of the dilemmas I’ve had to face this week as your representative.

Understanding that not all of you will agree with me, I will do my best to explain clearly my reasoning.  Always I welcome contrasting discussion. Please let me continue to hear from you.

Home rule vs. state relief

On Monday, our committee heard LD 6, An Act To Prohibit a Requirement That a Superintendent Reside in the School Administrative Unit.

Six Maine municipalities — Biddeford, Lewiston, Augusta, Waterville, Brewer, and Presque Isle  — have requirements in their municipal charters specifying that school superintendents must be city residents.  Biddeford and Augusta currently are searching for new superintendents (along with nearly a third of Maine’s school districts) and both have found that their residency requirement is a significant deterrent to many good candidates. Therefore, representatives from those two cities are seeking to have the legislature comprehensively prohibit municipalities from imposing a residency requirement.

I fully understand why the residency requirement is almost certainly bad policy.  But, to me that determination is better made by local school boards than by comprehensive state prohibition.  After all, there may be some communities in which residency may have overarching importance.

But what troubles me most about this bill is that it seeks to make an end-run around municipal voters.   Each of these towns has their own local avenue of relief by having their voters amend their charters.  Biddeford, in fact, attempted exactly this but had it fail at referendum.  Given this, it seems arrogant and anti-democratic for the state to conclude that it knows better than local voters about the respective merits and drawbacks of municipal policy.

On their own, Lewiston apparently found a middle way to solve this problem by leaving the residency requirement in place in their charter but allowing the municipal school board to waive the restriction.  To me, that seems the proper solution and I would hope the other five municipalities could find their way out similarly.

On Wednesday at a work session, our Committee had tabled this bill pending some legal questions and is considering some amendments proposed by the Maine School Management Association.  While I remain open-minded to this additional information, I’m inclined to oppose this bill as presented.

Here’s a news report.

Community vs. commitment

On Wednesday afternoon, our committee heard two bills related to granting private-schooled and home-schooled students increased access to public school programs.

LD 61, An Act To Amend Standards for Participation in Certain Public School Services by Students Who Are Homeschooled, seeks to extend access to special education services to home-schoolers.  LD 92, An Act Relating to Private School Student Participation in Public School Cocurricular, Interscholastic and Extracurricular Activities, as the title suggests, proposes to allow private school students to participate in public school team sports and other co-curricular  activities not offered by their own schools.

Underlying the arguments regarding both bills is the struggle for insufficient school resources.  Opponents hold that those committing to attend public schools ought to get first dibs on school activities including competitive placement on teams.  Proponents argue that they support these school activities with their tax dollars and so ought to have an equal claim to participate.

I sympathize with both views.  But, ultimately, for me it comes down to the frame of the special turf that public schools possess as community institutions.

Wholly unlike private, parochial, and charter schools, a public school represents a community’s capacity to provide educational opportunity to all students.  To the same extent that I believe all citizens bear an obligation to support this public educational opportunity, I believe our schools are obligated to extend that opportunity to every child in the community, even to those who only partially participate by choice.

In many ways, private and charter schools and even home-schoolers deepen the tribal divides between community members.  In contrast, public schools offer a privileged common ground.

This seems a fundamentally important principle: the more broadly mapped a community is to its school, the better our community prospects and vitality – and the broader the community support at budget time.

This is also why I deeply oppose diverting public money through vouchers and tax credits to private, parochial, and charter schools which bear none of this sort of broader obligation.

Encouragement vs. requirement

Nothing ignites passions this season like guns.  I still trust that Mainers can discuss gun rights and gun regulation with equal respect and rectitude.

We had a committee hearing on Thursday on the first of this session’s gun-related bills, LD 93, An Act To Require Public Secondary Schools To Offer a Course in Gun Safety and Handling.

At the hearing there were significant differences between the bill’s proponents about whether the best purpose of the bill was to teach actual gun handling to high school students or gun avoidance as part of a broader health and safety program for elementary students — both of which are currently allowed (but not required) in public schools.  The Governor’s counsel further muddied the water by testifying, nominally in support of the bill, that the Governor thought that such efforts ought to be ‘encouraged’ but not mandated.

Given the Governor’s position in particular, I think the chances of passage of this bill, which mandates the provision of such instruction, are very slim.

Privacy vs secrecy

But any debate on this bill is now greatly eclipsed by the furor that same day following another bill, LD 345, An Act To Ensure the Confidentiality of Concealed Weapons Permit Holder Information which seeks to make secret the issuance of public permits for concealed weapons.

Similarly to the way that concern about expanded national gun restriction has stimulated current gun sales, this bill prompted the Bangor Daily News to seek the current public lists of concealed weapons permits from the respective local authorities that issue the permits and maintain the records.

Fearing that this request foreshadowed public publication of permit holders’ names and addresses, legislators have been deluged with emails from angry gun owners demanding that public access to permit data be immediately restricted.

I have some sympathy about the privacy concerns of law-abiding gun owners, especially given that there is virtually no evidence in Maine of the slightest criminal activity of any concealed permit holders.

At the same time, it seems strange to me that public knowledge of gun-carrying permits increases the chances of gun-owners being victimized.  In contrast, I might hypothesize that knowing how common guns are in Maine and the respectability of permit holders might aid in allaying public fear about gun ownership.  But I am open to education about this.

In the meantime, the Governor and Democratic legislative leaders have proposed an emergency bill which would temporarily restrict access to public concealed weapons permit data until the legislature can properly deliberate on the original LD 345.

So, knowing that I will unavoidably disappoint many good friends not matter how this is resolved, I want to say that I begin by being fundamentally distressed by the concept of our government secretly issuing permits of any kind.

Principle vs. compromise

On Wednesday, the Appropriations Committee reached unanimous bipartisan consensus on the supplemental budget.

The Appropriations Committee work is heroic, in terms of both endurance and compromise.  So it’s always interesting to note what’s finally in and out of their final report.

Significantly for our area, among many other reasonable provisions, the final bill:

  • maintains the reimbursement rate for rural Critical Access Hospitals such as MDI’s, defending it against the Governor’s initial proposed reductions.
  • reduces the proposed reductions for many other essential health services including the Fund for Healthy Maine and the drugs for the elderly program.
  • adds language requiring the state to pursue any federal funds to facilitate Maine’s participation in the federal insurance exchange under the Affordable Care Act.
  • rejects the proposed elimination of cost of living increases for state retirees including teachers.

The only item that failed in the smoke of the compromise was the removal of the ‘curtailment surcharge’ added to school districts which subsidize charter schools.  To the Democrats this seemed self-evident as a matter of basic fairness.  But the Republicans held that it was more important to protect charter school operations from curtailment, even if that required extra cuts to the public schools in the charters’ pupils’ home districts.  And, even though the five thousand or so dollars at stake were vanishingly insignificant against the overall $150 million budget, defense of charters ultimately was the line in the sand the Republicans chose to defend.

Overall, however, the supplemental budget represents a good compromise and the Appropriations Committee deserves the credit it’s receiving for its work so far this session.

One thought on “Feb 11-15: four dilemmas and a decent compromise

  1. Martha Williams

    ” I want to say that I begin by being fundamentally distressed by the concept of our government secretly issuing permits of any kind.”

    I really like that statement. It expresses exactly what I think. I am very disappointed by the Bangor Daily News backing down. Thank you for expressing this sentiment.

    Reply

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