Fall is here again and with it, another school year for Maine students. For me, this time of year is one of my personal favorites. After all, it’s football season! After not being able to play last year, I know students all across Maine are just as excited as I am to participate in fall sports. But as we all know, that wasn’t the only change we experienced last school year.

Joe Rafferty Courtesy photo

Classes switched to remote or hybrid models to combat COVID-19, leaving students and teachers alike to endure some of the most drastic changes experienced as a result of the pandemic. As a former educator, my heart goes out to all the hardworking teachers who found ways to overcome adversity to continue educating our children while keeping everyone safe. After a tough school year, I am pleased to introduce these new positive changes that will be coming to our classrooms to thanks to Maine lawmakers.

Food-insecurity is a serious issue for our state. As the chair of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, I saw the data on this problem first-hand. The sad reality is that one in six Maine children do not know where their next meal will be coming from. I believe that when students are in school, all of their focus should be on learning.

From my time in the classroom, I can tell you that it becomes much more difficult for kids to learn when they’re hungry, and reasonably so. That’s why this year, the Legislature made sure to include funding in our bipartisan biennial budget that guarantees all students, regardless of income, will have access to free meals at school.

The new measure is historic, as Maine is only the second state in the nation to guarantee access to free school meals for all students. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about this, and how happy I am for Maine students. This will surely make our classrooms much better learning environments.

It is worth mentioning that, although school meals are being provided to all students free-of-charge, families will still need to fill out the forms that would qualify their children for free meals. This is simply a federal requirement to help our schools get the funding necessary to provide the meals. To find the forms, visit maine.gov/doe/schools/nutrition/studenteligibility. If you need assistance or have questions with verification reports or requirements, you can contact the department’s Child Nutrition Specialist David Hartley at [email protected] or 624-6878.

This year, we also increased state funding of public education to 55 percent. This change is a massive win for our students. Seventeen years ago, Maine voters passed a referendum that required the state to cover 55 percent of public education costs, but it never happened. When the state didn’t fulfil its commitment of 55 percent, the remaining costs were left to be picked up by municipalities and, ultimately, property taxpayers. The funding has been a long time in the making, and I am so pleased we were finally able to make it happen this last legislative session.

One of the bills I was most proud to see become law was my bill to increase communication between school boards and educators. When I was teaching, I experienced all sorts of approaches and communication styles from different superintendents over the years. It was my experience that increased communication always led to the best outcomes for our students, and that should be our priority here.

The law increases transparency between school board members and the communities they serve by requiring public notices at least 10 days in advance of meetings between a school board and representatives of public employees. Additionally, such meetings must occur at regularly scheduled school board meetings.

The bottom line is these changes are investments in Maine students and Maine’s future. When we make sure kids have the tools to learn, everyone wins. You have my word that with every bill that comes across my desk in the Legislature, I will always be keeping Maine students and educators in mind, and I will always have their back.

If you ever have any comments or questions, you can always reach out to me at [email protected] or by phone at 207-590-9902. If you want to stay up to date on what we’re working on in Augusta, sign up for my newsletter at mainesenate.org.

Joe Rafferty is a member of the Maine State Senate representing District 34, Acton, Kennebunk, Lebanon, Moody, North Berwick, Wells, West Lebanon and part of Berwick. He can be reached at [email protected]

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