Lewiston public schools could get $3.1 million more per year and Auburn could get $2.78 million more, under a referendum question a group hopes to bring to the ballot in November.

On Tuesday, “Stand Up for Students” — a group led by the Maine Education Association — said it has exceeded the number of signatures needed to bring the school-funding referendum to the ballot.

The group collected nearly 95,000 voter signatures in three months; it needed 61,123 signatures, according to Giovanna Bechard of the Maine Education Association.

As planned, the signatures will be turned in to the Secretary of State’s office on Monday for validation.

The ballot question would ask voters whether they want to increase state funding for education to 55 percent by creating a 3 percent surcharge on Maine’s top 2 percent of income earners.

That would mean anyone who earns more than $200,000 a year would pay a 3 percent surcharge on income over $200,000. For a person earning $210,000, the extra income tax would be about $300.

“It’s been an amazing effort,” Bechard said. “We had so many volunteers; more than 350 MEA members collected signatures. They understand how important this is. It’s a game-changer.”

The group also contracted with former Lewiston legislator Stavros Mendros, who owns and operates Olympic Consulting, Bechard said, to have paid collectors ask for signatures.

Of the nearly 95,000 signatures, 2,000 were from Mendros’ workers, Bechard said.

“It was a very limited contract,” she said. “The majority of people out there collecting signatures were our members.”

Mendros is in the news over charges that Olympic Consulting did not pay workers who gathered signatures, some of whom were flown in from Florida and stayed in local hotels.

For the “Stand Up for Students” group, Election Day was the big kickoff to gather voter signatures, Bechard said.

“On Election Day alone, we gathered 25,000 signatures across the state,” she said. “It was a lot.”

According to Bechard, the income tax surcharge would raise $157 million a year for schools.

Under the state aid to education funding formula, Portland would receive an additional $10.8 million; Augusta, $2.13 million; Bangor, $3.5 million; Sanford, $2.01 million; and Skowhegan, $2.3 million.

“I gathered signatures myself,” Bechard said. Often people asked where would the money come from. When it was explained it would come from those earning more than $200,000 a year, “people said, ‘That’s not me. Where do I sign?’”

“They’ve seen what’s happening in schools,” Bouchard said, such as teachers asking parents to contribute for classroom needs because budgets have been cut.

Lewiston High School teacher Samantha Garnett also collected signatures. Those who signed were supportive when told the referendum would help public schools.

The referendum should pass, Garnett said.

“Ten years ago, the voters of the state passed a referendum to fund schools at 55 percent; that was the funding schools desperately needed,” Garnett said. “The state never brought that to fruition.”

Funding makes a difference, she said. Students learn better when classrooms have fewer students and when needed supplies, such as recent textbooks and technology, are available.

But Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster wondered whether the referendum would make the school funding situation worse in the long run through less economic development.

“On one hand, no question we could use additional funding,” Webster said. “For the short term, it would be wonderful news.”

But Maine is viewed as a high-tax state, he said. If higher taxes cut economic growth by entrepreneurs looking at other states with lower taxes, “at the end of the day, we may not get as much money, or even (less).”

Matthew Gagnon of the Maine Heritage Policy Center said taxing the wealthiest to get more money for education “is a drastic mistake.”

“It presupposes education doesn’t receive enough funding,” Gagnon said. Taxing upper-income residents is seen as an easy solution, he said, adding that school quality doesn’t always correspond to funding. Other factors that contribute to good schools are teacher quality and parental involvement.

If the wealthiest are taxed more, Maine becomes less hospitable. For people who are splitting time between living in Maine and Florida, “you are incentivizing them to go,” he said. “When they go, you don’t get anything.”

Groups supporting the “Stand Up for Students” ballot referendum:

Maine Education Association, Maine Parent Teacher Association, Maine Small Business Coalition, Machinists (IAM) Local S7, Maine People’s Resource Center, Maine People’s Alliance, Maine AFL-CIO and Maine State Employees Association.

For more information, visit standupforstudentsmaine.org.

Summary of proposed referendum

“This initiated bill establishes the Fund to Advance Public Kindergarten to Grade 12 Education for the purpose of improving the ability of the state to reach the annual target of 55 percent, as specified in statute, for the state share of the total cost of funding public education from kindergarten to grade 12, and for increasing direct support for student learning rather than administrative costs.

“Revenue for the fund is generated by a 3 percent surcharge on Maine taxable income over $200,000, beginning with tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2017.”


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