As Maine prepares its application for Race to the Top — the federal competition offering billions to states for education reform — divisions and uncertainty have emerged among state officials, teachers’ unions and local school districts.

With federal officials rewarding states that have presented united fronts in their applications, Maine’s fractured landscape could jeopardize its chances to secure up to $75 million for education reform.

On Wednesday, Maine’s lawmakers passed the last of three bills to solidify the state’s application for Race to the Top. Now, the Maine Department of Education is trying to persuade school districts and teachers’ unions to support its bid.

But leaders of the Maine Education Association are advising union presidents not to commit to the reforms. The MEA Board of Directors on Thursday urged local union leaders not to sign documents that indicate their support for Maine’s Race to the Top initiatives.

The message, sent in an e-mail to union presidents, said those documents had “too many flaws and too many unknowns.”

“It’s a contract. If you’re going to make a commitment of work, you ought to know what you’re signing,” MEA President Chris Galgay said in an interview Friday.

Through a spokesman, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said she was “extremely disappointed” by the union’s message to members.

“For them to criticize a document that was intended for input is inappropriate,” she said. “They are bashing something that they haven’t even seen yet.”

MORE INFORMATION WANTED

Buy-in from unions and school districts has proven to be a crucial ingredient in the Race to the Top fortunes of Delaware and Tennessee, which claimed $100 million and $500 million, respectively, in the competition’s first round.

In awarding the funds last month, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan lauded the two states for securing broad support from school districts and teachers’ unions for reform initiatives.

Maine will apply by June 1 for the second round of awards.

But local school officials say they need more information about Maine’s reforms before signing the agreements — called memorandums of understanding — that confirm their support for Race to the Top.

State education officials have yet to publicly outline firm reforms, which makes it tough for districts to sign on, said Paul Knowles, superintendent of Gardiner-based Regional School Unit 11.

“It’s not even on the radar screen yet, because the details have not come out,” he said.

Many local school boards and teachers’ unions have yet to broach the topic of whether to sign onto Maine’s Race to the Top initiatives.

Tom Major, a South Portland High School teacher and president of the South Portland Teachers Association, said local union members will likely defer to state union leadership when deciding whether to support Race to the Top.

“I’ve got so many more pressing issues in front of me that this just has not been a priority for me,” Major said. “(MEA) folks are much better briefed on the issue, so I will certainly weigh their counsel heavily.”

LEGAL QUESTION REMAINS

Last week, lawmakers passed a bill, L.D. 1799, to allow schools to use student test data in teacher and principal evaluations.

Without this provision, Maine would have been ineligible for Race to the Top.

The MEA, however, successfully lobbied legislators to amend the bill to create a five-member panel charged with creating a slate of pre-approved evaluation models that districts must choose from if they decide to use student data in staff evaluations.

The Maine attorney general — who has to sign the state’s Race to the Top application, certifying that there are no legal barriers to tying student testing data to teacher evaluations — issued an opinion Wednesday saying the amended bill might not rid Maine of that barrier. This has cast doubt on the state’s eligibility for the competition.

“More research needs to be done to determine the Legislature’s intent in passing the bill,” said Attorney General’s Office spokeswoman Kate Simmons.

MEA treasurer Joyce Blakney said it’s difficult to support an initiative that’s spurred Maine to change several education policies in a short period of time.

“We just changed all our educational law at the tiny, tiny chance of getting some money,” said Blakney, a Waterville Senior High School math teacher and vice president of the Waterville Teachers Association.

In coming weeks, the Department of Education will meet with school superintendents, board members and union representatives about Race to the Top plans, in hopes of securing statewide support from them.

“Until we can get buy-in from the entire community that things have to change and that we need to be aggressive in pursuing reform, it’s not going to work,” said Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin.