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Impending Cuts Put Maine School Reforms in Jeopardy

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By Daniel Gursky

As budget negotiations broke down last week in Maine, Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. was preparing to use his emergency powers to make across-the-board spending cuts that critics charge will destroy school reform in the state.

"Education reform as we know it will be dead," said Keith Harvie, the communications director for the Maine Teachers' Association. "This puts us back to at least 1983, and it may put us back into the 1970's as far as the quality of education in Maine."

Because of an unanticipated drop in tax revenues caused by Maine's continuing economic problems, the state faces an estimated budget deficit of about $125 million in the current fiscal year.

Mr. McKernan, a Republican, submitted a deficit-reduction package to the Democrat-majority legislature that, among other cuts, would have pared state aid to education by $21 million.

The joint House-Senate appropriations committee failed to reach agreement on the Governor's plan or on any alternatives, however. So Mr. McKernan proposed across-the-board cuts of 13 percent for each state department, which would mean $35 million less for education.

"It's a real heavy hit on the classroom," said Representative Nathaniel J. Crowley Sr., the chairman of the joint education committee, noting that schools have already committed much of the money to be cut.

Reform Mandates Backed

To help local districts save money, Mr. McKernan's original plan would have suspended several key state education mandates dating from a 1984 reform law, including class-size limits of 25 students for grades K-8 and 30 for high school.

But that brought an unfavorable response from members of the education committee. "Once they dismantle all of these reform acts, it will be impossible to put them back in," Mr. Crowley said. "Schools will lose ground."

Although the plan to suspend specific education mandates is on hold for now, Commissioner of Education Eve M. Bither already has sweeping powers to grant schools waivers from state regulations and statutes. Faced with additional cuts, more districts may be forced to request money-saving waivers.

Ms. Bither acknowledged that education will fare much worse under the emergency cuts than under the Governor's original proposal. Nevertheless, she said she sees "encouraging" signs around the state.

"Whenever I talk to superintendents, principals, teachers, and school-board members," Ms. Bither noted, "they all say, 'It's important that we keep reforms moving ahead.' There's a real commitment to reform, and I hope we can maintain that."

The Governor's critics are much less optimistic. "The impact on K-12 education will be just devastating." said Ann Anctil, the president of the Maine Teachers' Association.

So far, she added, the state's school districts have generally avoided teacher layoffs and furloughs, but they may have to order staff reductions once the new round of budget cuts goes into effect.

Educators say their best hope is that the legislature early next year will be able to agree on an alternative to the Governor's emergency cuts, which otherwise will remain in effect through next June.

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