Local Control Concerns Stirred by Constitutional Amendment Proposal

At issue is a constitutional amendment proposed by Sen. Susan Longley, D-Liberty, that would rewrite a provision that since statehood has placed the onus for providing education on local communities. Longley told the Education Committee on Thursday she hoped to match the constitutional language with the historical practice by which the state does not merely require municipalities to finance schools but also assists in assuming school costs.

“We’ve always been honoring our ethic. It just isn’t documented in the Constitution,” Longley told the panel. “I’m not trying to change the course of history. I’m just trying to have our Constitution reflect our ethic.” Some skeptics and critics, however, have challenged the proposed amendment, suggesting it would undercut the principle of local control of public schools by enhancing state influence. Other questions have been raised about whether Longley’s amendment, seeking to promote “equitable and adequate education” for all students, would trigger new court battles.

Among those backing the resolution was the Maine School Boards Association, which said it addressed the association’s desire to “require the state to assure educational equity for all Maine public school students and to provide the resources necessary to meet this requirement.”

Cautions were raised by the Maine Municipal Association, which said a staff analysis suggested “both positive and negative” impact. “We support the removal of the language identifying municipalities as the sole entity responsible for providing K-12 education,” the MMA said in prepared testimony. But, the municipal association added, “without a more comprehensive understanding” of the meanings of equity and adequacy, “it is our fear that the courts will be compelled to determine their meaning through a process of extensive litigation.”

The MMA noted: “Paying for lawyers will not help us in our efforts to pay for education.” Longley’s amendment also drew support from the Maine Children’s Alliance, but was criticized by conservative activist Mary Adams, who did not attend the public hearing but made available to The Associated Press a written critique. “For all the smokescreen talk about these being children’s bills, the truth is that they are not even education bills,” Adams complained. “They are tax bills,” she wrote, asserting that approval could pave the way for a state property tax.

The sponsor of a second constitutional amendment proposal, Democratic Sen. Judy Paradis of Frenchville, told the committee she would withdraw hers and support Longley’s general approach. Committee leaders, citing difficult travel conditions created by an overnight ice storm, said further public testimony would be received when the panel convenes for deliberations on the resolution later this month. Longley said she hoped to persuade skeptics that her proposal would strengthen, rather than weaken, local control.

“What we have on the books is a state mandate and that’s the exact opposite of local control,” she said.

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