Newport-area school board directors have issued a resolution urging the state to fund Maine public education at 55 percent, a fact that state Democrats seized on Monday to point out that the region is represented by House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, a Republican.

The resolution comes as the two parties wrangle over state budget negotiations – and education funding is a top point of disagreement – while the threat of a state government shutdown looms if a budget isn’t signed by Gov. Paul LePage before Saturday.

School board directors in Regional School Unit 19, the home district of Fredette, of Newport, issued a resolution urging the state to fund public education at the level approved by Maine voters in 2003.

The state’s “failure to pay 55 percent of school funding forces towns comprising RSU 19 to make up the difference, often by raising property taxes, cutting essential services, or both,” the resolution, dated June 20, states. The lack of state funding for education is resulting in additional losses of $715,000 from an already strained budget, “causing our children and our communities to suffer,” the resolution adds.

RSU 19 serves the towns of Corinna, Dixmont, Etna, Hartland, Newport, Palmyra and St. Albans.

Christopher Easton, chairman of the RSU 19 board, said Monday that the vote on the resolution was unanimous. He said it was the right thing to do.

Funding for education in the current proposed state budget comes in at 47 percent, he said.

Rob Poindexter, communications director for House Republicans and a resident of RSU 19, said he was surprised by the resolution, noting that the district already receives 62.3 percent of its funding from the state, a fact acknowledged by Easton. Poindexter asked rhetorically whether the board would like to see that drop to 55 percent.

“They’re free to pass whatever resolution they want, but RSU 19 is funded at greater than 62 percent,” he said.

MANDATED BY VOTERS

While Easton said it is true that RSU 19 receives that much in state aid to education, his board is concerned about the mandate issued by voters to fund education at 55 percent all across the state, for all school districts.

“The vote, by referendum, which was many years ago, called for the 55 percent for all of the districts in the state combined,” Easton said.

He said the Maine Department of Education accepts the funding and breaks it up for distribution based on economic need. If that was funding at 55 percent, RSU 19 would get funding in “the high 60s,” he said.

“We talked about it many other meetings before,” Easton said. “The governor’s budget slashed us $715,000, and we’re already cutting close to the bone. It’s a plea to advocate that the state should live up to a vote calling for the state to live up to the promise of public education.”

Maine Democrats on Monday targeted Fredette and his House Republicans.

“What is it going to take for Rep. Fredette to realize that Mainers want fair funding for their schools?” Maine Democratic Party Chairman Phil Bartlett said in a statement. “It is time for Rep. Fredette and his GOP caucus to do the right thing, to support Maine people and fully fund the state’s share of K-12 public education.”

House Republicans last week offered to put more money into education but insisted on eliminating an income tax surcharge of 3 percent on affluent households, as negotiations on a new state budget continued in the face of a state government shutdown. Maine’s constitution requires the Legislature to enact a balanced budget or the government shuts down.

Fredette increased his House Republican offer on funding for public education from $30 million to $125 million, but also said Republicans remained firm in their stance on repealing the surcharge on household income over $200,000 that voters passed in November.

Easton, at RSU 19, said Fredette “orchestrated the Republican budget proposal” and it may help if the money is distributed appropriately.

RSU 19 Superintendent Mike Hammer was in conferences all day Monday and unavailable for comment on the resolution, according to the district office. Evelyn Curtis, an administrative assistant in the superintendent’s office, said the school board vote of the resolution was unanimous and a letter has been sent to the area’s state representatives.

The school board’s resolution also makes clear, Democrats said Monday, that the failure to fund education at 55 percent is “preventing RSU 19 from recruiting highly trained and qualified teachers and retaining the excellent teachers already employed by the district.”

GROUPS STILL APART

“Rep. Fredette’s school board said it loud and clear and even put it in writing – enact a budget that funds public schools at 55 percent as mandated by Maine voters to provide vital educational resources and relief to local taxpayers,” Bartlett said. “On behalf of his own constituents, I’d encourage Rep. Fredette to heed their advice and support a budget that finally provides the resources necessary for kids and teachers to succeed.”

Messages left for Fredette on Monday were not immediately returned.

After Fredette made the offer to increase state aid to $125 million, LePage issued a statement saying that if the Legislature passes a budget similar to the latest Republican offer, he would sign it into law. That would avert a government shutdown after June 30, the constitutional deadline for getting a budget approved.

“We believe this proposal strikes the right balance between education reforms and education funds in a way that allows the policy to drive the dollars,” Fredette said in a statement last week.

“We believe with this budget, we can close out the budget process before June 30.”

The House Republican offer is about $75 million less than what Democrats say is needed for the state to fund 55 percent of public school costs – a level set in state law that has not been achieved.

Democrats have said they are open to alternatives to the 3 percent surcharge, which was enacted to funnel more money into public schools.

Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at:

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