LEWISTON — A meeting between parents and local school officials got ugly Wednesday night when Mayor Robert Macdonald suggested a legislative remedy to discourage “Brockton,” Mass., welfare seekers from moving to Lewiston.
The meeting, held at the Geiger Elementary School, was hosted by school officials to get parents’ input on a plan to redistrict city schools to ease overcrowding. After more than two hours of discussion, Macdonald spoke up, asking for the crowd’s support for legislation to strengthen an existing five-year cap on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as TANF, and possibly extending that cap to General Assistance benefits.
Restricting access to General Assistance, Macdonald said, could result in 1,000 fewer students in Lewiston schools by the end of the school year, and could ease overcrowding in schools because welfare-seeking families would move away when benefits disappeared.
According to Lewiston School Committee member Sonia Taylor, the mayor said that “people come from Massachusetts and New York to Lewiston for welfare” and “they are lazy and their children are lazy in school.”
“It was offensive,” she said. “What he was proposing was not a solution, wanting to get rid of kids,” and she couldn’t support his view.
On Thursday, acknowledging he spoke to Geiger parents in anger, causing some parents to shout at him, the mayor stood by his comments.
“What’s happening here is a lot of people are coming in, all these welfare people, from out of state because of our welfare generosity,” Macdonald said, making it clear he was not referencing refugees.
The out-of-staters come from “a generation of welfare. They could care less about going to school. They don’t feel like they’re going to work anyway,” he said, and so they disrupt classrooms and there’s little teachers or administrations can do because the “parents don’t do anything.”
The difference between these welfare seekers and refugees, he said, “is that the refugees go to school to get an education because they are planning to get a job.”
Macdonald told parents he believed the city and the School Department had been “dealt a bad hand by the present welfare system,” according to Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster.
Macdonald said Thursday that anyone who doesn’t support redistricting shouldn’t be mad at Webster because overcrowding “is not his fault, but he’s got to do something.”
The trend of welfare-seekers coming to Lewiston and overburdening budgets and classrooms has been a “problem long before Bill Webster,” Macdonald said.
“I was awful and I wasn’t fair," he said of Wednesday's comments, "but if this welfare law is put into place there would be, at the end of the year, over 1,000 kids off the rolls in Lewiston because their parents would have gone elsewhere because they would no longer get support” from General Assistance.
Taylor said she was disappointed to hear the mayor talk like that. "I like to back him up when I can, but he crossed the line,” she said, by speculating on reduced student numbers.
The other problem the city faces, according to Macdonald, is in the breadth of services available to teens. These programs, like New Beginnings, he said, are full of teens who “left home because they don’t want to follow the rules." Then they go to school and their bad behavior spills over onto everybody else, affecting teachers’ ability to work in their classrooms. And, he said, while teachers will complain about this to friends and family, they don’t complain to administrators “because they’re afraid to lose their jobs.”
He believes fewer generational welfare recipients in city schools would improve classroom behavior. As it is, he said, Lewiston families send their children to school to learn in a disruptive environment.
“It’s not fair that your kid goes to school and is denied an education,” Macdonald said, because an out-of-stater misbehaves.
Last year, as part of Gov. Paul LePage’s budget, Maine imposed a five-year limit on TANF recipients, but if a family reaches that limit they are permitted to seek General Assistance in the towns where they live.
That’s not how it was supposed to work, Macdonald said Thursday. “The spirit of the law was that, after five years, you should have gotten job training and got off” all public assistance. Instead, the TANF cap has simply moved more welfare costs to municipalities.
Last year, when TANF benefits expired and hundreds of families turned to their local General Assistance offices for support, the Mayors Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development — including mayors in Auburn and Lewiston — urged action to create a five-year lifetime limit on other welfare programs, including GA, to ease the burden on municipal budgets.
That idea failed to gain traction at the State House after coalition member Portland Mayor Michael Brennan opposed it, but Macdonald is determined to see the idea reintroduced to chill out-of-state welfare-seekers from moving to Maine and, in particular to Lewiston. The mayors' coalition has already unanimously voted to seek a sponsor.
Last year, that sponsor was Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant, who represents Kennebunk and part of Biddeford in the Legislature, and Macdonald is confident Casavant will sponsor its reintroduction.
Casavant was not available for comment Thursday.
In addition to working toward an expanded cap, Macdonald said Lewiston — “the only city in the state that prosecutes welfare fraud” — will be stepping up its crackdown on fraud in the coming weeks.
Staff Writer Bonnie Washuk contributed to this report.