Maine Lawmakers MullPhasing Out State AidTo 2-Year-Old Magnet

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Lawmakers in Maine may decide this week whether the state should continue subsidizing a 2-year-old math and science magnet school for high-achieving students.

Gov. Angus S. King Jr. is proposing that the state phase out its $1 million-a-year commitment to the program started by his predecessor. Mr. King would leave enough funding for next year's senior class to graduate, but none to enroll a new class next fall in the two-year school.

"Given the fact that all education is hurting, he didn't think it was the right time to embark on a new, fairly expensive program," said Dennis Bailey, the governor's communications director. "He's not saying it's a bad school. He didn't think this was the time to have it."

But the $667,000 that Mr. King, an Independent, proposed in his fiscal 1998 budget as money to see the current juniors through graduation would not be enough, the head of the school said.

"We wouldn't be able to open the doors next year and have a quality program," said Dottie DeSelle, the acting director of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics.

Compromise Sought

The legislature's education committees are recommending a compromise.

They would fund the magnet school at current levels for two more years, but urge it to find federal and private money to ease the state's burden for the long term.

Appropriations committees may take up the issue this week.

The school might be eligible to win aid under the $51 million federal charter school program, officials said.

But Ms. DeSelle is not sure the school would be able to win enough grants to make up for a smaller commitment from the state.

"You have to have a track record before you can get federal funds or foundation funds," she said. "It's not something that's going to happen in the next two years."

The school might consider charging tuition on a sliding scale to pay expenses, Mr. Bailey suggested.

Tuition is now free, but the school charges $2,000 a year for room and board, Ms. DeSelle said.

Philosophical Issue

The school opened in 1995 with $2.1 million in the state's two-year budget cycle that ends this July. The magnet school was an initiative of Gov. John R. McKernan Jr., who left office after the 1994 elections.

The former governor, a Republican, persuaded the legislature to create a magnet school after studying similar programs in 11 other states, Ms. DeSelle said.

The Maine school requires that students take English, humanities, and foreign languages, but they also can enroll in high-level courses such as linear algebra, inorganic chemistry, astronomy, and other subjects most Maine high schools don't offer.

About 40 percent of this year's graduates will leave the state to attend college.

Mr. McKernan chose the site in Limestone, located in the northeastern tip of the state about four miles from the Canadian border, because the town was reeling after Loring Air Force base closed.

The school leases a building the local schools vacated after a sudden dip in enrollment following the base closing. It also rents the district's buses to ferry students home on vacations and long weekends.

Mr. King, the nation's only Independent governor, recommended closing the school to help balance the financially strapped state's budget.

But Mr. Bailey acknowledged that the governor also has "philosophical problems" with the magnet school.

"It's essentially a prep school, but it's state funded," Mr. Bailey said. "You're setting up a two-tier system."

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