Lewiston superintendent says LePage proposal to send casino money to private schools

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LEWISTON —The Oxford Casino was approved by voters in referendum on the premise that some of the proceeds would go to education.

But according to Lewis ton School Superintendent Bill Webster, Republican Gov. Paul LePage plans to send casino money earmarked for education to private schools.

“The plan by the governor is not to run those (casino) funds through the education funding formula, rather to earmark them for specific things such as funding school choice options for students who might not otherwise be able to afford private school,” Webster told the School Committee on Monday night.

It was one item on a list of state budget proposals that will hurt the budgets of local schools like Lewiston, if approved by legislators in Augusta, Webster said.

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Other LePage proposals that could harm local schools include cutting revenue-sharing money to towns and cities, shifting teacher pension costs to towns and cities, cutting school funding and pushing part of a month’s state education payment from June to July, which pushes it into the next fiscal year.

School Committee Chairman Jim Handy, a former Democratic state legislator, blasted LePage’s budget proposals.

While the total dollar damage from LePage’s plans is not clear, “what is clear is the governor’s absolute disdain for public education and public school teachers,” Handy said. He called LePage’s proposals a “frontal assault on public education.”

The Oxford casino referendum was “passed on the premise of providing education money, yet he’s funding other things he sees as priorities,” Handy said. “It’s unfortunate.”

In addition to the casino revenue, other changes in LePage’s budget include:

The curtailment in state education funding for the current budget cycle, which ends June 30, is a loss of nearly $257,000 for the Lewiston School Department.

“We talk about flat funding for the next two years. First we’ve got to take the curtailment out,” Webster said. “Right away, we’re being funded at a lesser level than what legislators approved last spring. In addition to that,” it is shifting half of Maine’s teacher retirement costs, which have long been paid by state taxpayers, to towns and cities.

LePage is proposing to have towns and cities pay for teacher retirement costs, “and run $14 million through the state funding formula,” he said. That would give some of the money back to schools. But “the bottom line is that schools will be hit by $14 million in additional charges.”

And, Webster said, “this may be opening the barn door. Where is it going to stop? The retirement plan is not something we negotiated at the local level.”

Another change is pushing $18.5 million in payments to school from June to July to balance this year’s state budget. And LePage wants to change the funding formula for technical centers across Maine, moving them to program-based reimbursements rather than cost-based reimbursements.

Until better numbers are known, “I can’t say where we’d end up,” Webster said. “There are more loose ends on the budget front than I ever recall between state revenue sharing, the reduction of General Purpose Aid, the retirement issue, the casino issue, a lot of things.”

Webster said he expects to release his recommended school budget in late February without knowing how much money Lewiston schools can expect from the state.

Those numbers may not be available until March, Webster said.

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