AUGUSTA — The five gubernatorial candidates on Maine’s Nov. 2 ballot discussed education – from funding to consolidation – at a forum Friday sponsored by the Maine School Management Association.

Republican Paul LePage, Democrat Libby Mitchell and independents Eliot Cutler, Shawn Moody and Kevin Scott shared the stage. Several hundred school officials attended the forum at the Augusta Civic Center.

On the state’s obligation to fund local education at 55 percent, only Scott said he thinks it is possible to reach that goal within the next two years.

“It’s inexcusable we don’t attain 55 percent,” he said.

Moody suggested averaging the last five years, adding a percent or two, and working to fund schools at that level. “The reality is, 55 percent was a goal that was too high,” he said.

LePage said he wants to work to get to 55 percent, but it won’t be easy.

“The next two years, the state is going to go through a major turnaround,” he said. “It needs to. We need to prioritize our expenditures. We need to shrink the size and scope of government.”

Mitchell said she doesn’t believe the budget shortfall – pegged at $800 million to $1 billion – will allow the state to fund schools at 55 percent.

“I do not believe we can get there next year,” she said. “I will do all that I can to at least stay where we are.”

Cutler said the state now funds 42 or 43 percent of the cost of public schools, and that the percentage is more likely to decrease than it is to rise.

“We need to free up resources within our system,” he said, adding that the property tax structure must be re-examined.

The candidates were asked why school consolidation didn’t meet the goal of reducing the number of districts to 80, and what they would do with the law.

Mitchell said the state tried consolidation to save money, but the top-down approach didn’t work.

Cutler said, “We’ve got to make it bottom up, not top down.”

Scott said school boards didn’t know enough about the process the Legislature put in place. “There was a complete lack of executive leadership in the area of communication,” he said.

LePage said the state could consolidate back office operations such as technology and nutrition at the county level, but he wants communities to be in charge of curriculum. “I believe a top down approach is wrong,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with consolidation but leave the school boards alone.”

Moody said he would advocate for a second phase of consolidation. “We just can’t leave it the way it is now.”

All but Moody said they would oppose an increase in the sales tax to create a fund to support education.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@mainetoday.com