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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I lifted this from the Rockland Free Press, but wanted to permanently post it as the FP doesn't archive its material … or I haven't figured out how it does so.

The reason: because its two parts -- the Gov's inaugural address on the budget and the following press release by the Dept. of Education provide some background for my next post.

Inaugural Address
Governor John Baldacci
January 3, 2007

“After all, this is my last Inaugural Address and the last elective office I will hold.”

…As we gather here, 365 Maine men and women of the National Guard are serving their state and nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. I call your attention to the vacant row of seats to my right in honor of their absence. We remember and honor their families who sacrifice so much while their loved ones are deployed. We pause to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and their families.

This Inauguration of Maine’s Governor signifies the end of a long campaign that highlighted many of Maine’s challenges. It also signifies the beginning of a term in which all of us, together, must get to work and address those challenges and improve the quality of life for Maine’s children and families.

First, though, I want to say thank you.

Thank you to the people of Maine for having faith in me to finish the job I started four years ago.
Thank you to my opponents — and there were many of them — for waging a spirited but principled campaign of issues and ideas. While we disagreed on many things, we all agree on working to make Maine a better place than it already is. This goal has brought us here tonight and will guide us in the days ahead.

I’ve learned a lot in the last four years — about government, about Maine people, and about Maine’s place in the world.

Maine has become a very different place than it was when I began serving on the Bangor City Council or representing the Second District in Washington.

Maine remains a beautiful place to live, work and raise a family — the best place in the world!

But Maine, like many areas of the country, is more and more influenced by outside forces that have given way to a different brand of politics than we’re used to — more partisan, more divisive and, ultimately, more detrimental to our democracy.

We recently witnessed this divisive atmosphere in the lengthy and expensive campaign over the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, a property-tax reform proposal that had its origins outside of Maine.

Maine voters rejected this idea.

But I’ve heard what Maine people are saying — loud and clear — and the debate over property taxes won’t end there.

The time has come to enact a property-tax relief policy that is by Maine people for Maine people!

But before I talk more about that, there are a few other things I want to say. After all, this is my last Inaugural Address and the last elective office I will hold.

The political campaigns that were just completed served many important purposes, the most important of which is giving the voters clear choices on how their state will be governed and managed in the years ahead.

But in the age of 10-second sound-bytes and carefully crafted TV commercials, these campaigns have a downside. All you hear are claims about what’s wrong with Maine. You hear about its high tax burden, its ailing economy. You hear about out-of-control government spending, about young people leaving Maine in droves, about Maine’s inability to compete with other states and other countries. All of this has the effect of making us more pessimistic about our future. It zaps our can-do spirit and makes Maine seem a much gloomier place than it really is.

I know this may shock you, but not everything you hear in a political campaign is 100% accurate.

This was clear from the recently completed independent Brookings Institution report that exploded many myths about Maine. The Brookings study has given us not just a blueprint to improve our economy, but a way to lift the extensive pessimism that permeates this state.

You might have heard that people are leaving Maine, but in fact we have the fifth-highest rate of any state in the country of people moving into our state. Who are these people moving to Maine? Many are highly educated, upper-income individuals looking for all the things that Maine has to offer that they can’t find anywhere else. And where are they coming from? More than half of them are coming from Massachusetts and New Hampshire, two states that are often held up as states Maine needs to emulate.

But if that’s true, why are so many people leaving those states and choosing to come to Maine? Because Maine has what the world wants: quality of life; a “gold standard” workforce. And we can compete globally.

We are the eighth-fastest growing state in exports in the United States. Foreign Direct Investment magazine ranked Maine’s quality of life as the best in the nation. And Inc. Magazine included Portland, Lewiston-Auburn and Bangor in its listing of the top cities for doing business and attracting entrepreneurs in America.

Large international companies competing on a global scale have located here and are thriving. TD Banknorth, National Semiconductor, and others employ thousands of hard-working Mainers. Their entrepreneurial spirit is mirrored in our home-grown small businesses criss-crossing the state: Oxford Aviation in Sanford; Sea Run Holdings of Eastport; and Maine Mutual Insurance Group of Presque Isle.

You’ve heard about Maine’s high tax burden — the amount of taxes Maine people pay relative to their incomes. But you probably didn’t hear that Maine’s tax burden is coming down while incomes are on the way up. In fact, Maine’s average income is at an all-time high, and our goal is to keep it going higher. If we can raise the average Maine income just a few thousand dollars while keeping taxes in check, our tax burden will fall to somewhere in the middle of the 50 states, and we wouldn’t be having this debate at all.

So it’s not enough to simply address our high taxes. We’re going to have to address growing our incomes, too. I’ll discuss how we intend to do both in a minute.

You might have heard that state spending is out of control. But in fact, over the past four years, we have established the lowest average spending rate increase in the last 30 years. We’ve capped government spending at all levels. We’ve put $140 million in our rainy-day fund and paid off a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar credit line.

You might have heard that we sorely lag behind in jobs, but resident employment has grown by 32,000 workers in the past four years. There are more Maine people working now than ever in our state’s history.

You may have heard that there is no strategic plan for growing Maine’s jobs, but we recently competed for and won a $15 million federal grant to support and expand Maine’s leadership in the boat-building industry, adding over 2,000 jobs in seven years.

Does all of this mean that we really don’t have to worry about taxes and spending, or the state of our economy? Absolutely not! But it doesn’t mean that everything is bad, or that we’re not doing anything right. The fact is we are doing a lot of things right. But we must do more. And Maine can do it.

To accomplish this will take our coordinated efforts. I look to work with the people of Maine to help us along our path. I recently reached out to the president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, Dana Connors, and its members to work together to promote Maine businesses, workers and job growth. Thank you, Dana, for your help and commitment. Together, we will succeed in bringing more business to Maine, and in putting more quality Maine workers in good-paying jobs.

Maine can do it. We can solve our problems and face our challenges. We need to celebrate our accomplishments, celebrate our achievements. We need to lift the cloud of pessimism that hangs over our state.

Maine is a leader once again on energy. Businesses are now flocking to Maine to harness our clean renewable energy resources: our wind, our tides, and our wood and wood wastes. Development of these energy resources will put money into the pockets of Mainers rather than exporting them out-of-state and overseas. We have come a long way on the road to energy independence, and I will continue to move us in that direction.

We’ve protected our environment. This year we completed the vision of Percival Baxter by adding Katahdin Lake to Baxter State Park. We continue to protect traditional land uses — like hunting and fishing — and have added three-quarters of a million acres of land to preserve Maine’s way of life for the future.

When we in Maine look back at the first years of this new century — an era driven by technology and innovation and a knowledge-based economy — one critically important action will stand out: the creation of Maine’s Community College System. In just four years, thousands of citizens — hardworking Maine people displaced from traditional manufacturing jobs, young high school graduates unsure of their future, underemployed adults struggling to make ends meet — have flooded our community colleges. Enrollment has soared by 47%. Our community colleges are building new skills for a new economy, and a brighter economic future for our entire state.

The University of Maine system enrolls 34,000 students. The vast majority of these are Maine people: your sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, friends and neighbors. Most of these students build their careers in Maine. By focusing on quality education, and pursuing R&D to create private-sector jobs, the University has an important impact on Maine’s future.

And the fact is we’ve provided property-tax relief to over 200,000 Maine households by doubling the individual Property Tax and Rent Refund Program, and tax relief to all Maine homeowners by increasing the homestead exempt valuation up to $13,000. And we increased the amount of state aid to education by replacing local property-tax dollars with $800 million in new state funding and putting spending caps on state, county and local government. But more must be done.

The people of Maine have spoken again and again of our collective need to stop the skyrocketing costs of property taxes.

At the state level, we can — and we must — do something. It must be bold and it must send a strong signal that we cannot continue doing business as usual.

We must support excellence in education, not excess administration. Maine has twice the number of school district officials per student than the national average. We spend $2,000 more per student than the national average, and pay our teachers $7,000 less. We can and we will do better.

My plan will reduce the number of superintendents from 152 to 26, establishing 26 regional centers similar to the technology centers that now serve the state. We will save a quarter of a billion dollars in the first three years of operation alone.

With the budget I will be submitting Friday, the State will have met the commitment that the people of Maine voted for — to have the State pay 55% of local education costs.

But this year I am going to insist that the savings available from increased funding be directly passed on to taxpayers for immediate property-tax relief. If it’s not guaranteed, I will veto the legislation.

But I believe that’s still not enough.

After listening to thousands of people all over the state, I am insisting that we move forward to freeze property valuations on homes of permanent Maine residents for tax purposes. This must be done to prevent people from being tax valued out of their homes. Permanent Maine residents will have their property-tax valuations frozen until such time as they sell their property, then the valuations on that property can and should rise.

This freeze is a vital component of our overall tax and spending priorities.

Of course there will be opposition to this. I expect it. I welcome it.

Change is always threatening but it is time we put the needs of permanent Maine residents ahead of all the special-interest groups and ahead of those who benefit from the ever-rising property-tax burden.

Enough is enough.

Here is where I stand. I ask Maine people to stand with me if they believe, as I do, that we need to look out for year-round permanent Maine residents.

The people of Maine require a bold initiative, and the package I am presenting — reducing state and school administrative costs; fulfilling the promise of state funding of local education to 55%; guaranteeing savings be passed along to residents; and freezing permanent residents’ property valuations for tax purposes — achieves this. We cannot continue the status quo, and I won’t stand for it!

But we can’t stop there.

We must raise the average income of Mainers to reduce the tax burden, too. It takes both sides of the ledger.

We will raise incomes by making investments in key areas to prepare Maine people for good-paying private-sector jobs. I want to thank Karen Gordon Mills for chairing the Council on Jobs, Innovation and the Economy and jump-starting this effort. Our people can compete anywhere in the world, but we need to build our capacity and our competitive edge in the global marketplace. We will do this by committing to investments in innovation and research and development that fuel private-sector jobs and economic growth.

We will expand Pine Tree Zones, enabling companies in Maine to have a level playing field and attract new business to this state.

We will do this by making commitments in education through 50% tuition reimbursement, at community-college rates, for those students who couldn’t afford to go on otherwise and who attend a state college or university. We will open the doors to higher education wider than ever before, so students are ready to learn and ready to succeed here in Maine.

We must change the status-quo in Augusta. We must look at things from a different perspective. And tonight I want to challenge Maine people to have the courage to change as well, in your own communities, whether that means partnering with other communities, sharing services, or joint purchasing. We have to use our God-given Yankee ingenuity — something no one else possesses, to accomplish this change.

Maine is truly at a crossroads.

Our people are experiencing the transition from an old economy to a new one. In the past our economy relied heavily on manufacturing to create wealth. Today we are moving to a new focus on innovative products and knowledge-based services. This change has brought pain and dislocation but it also heralds the possibility of a prosperous future for all Mainers.

In this new economy, Maine stands head and shoulders above any state in the nation. Our good people and strong communities, along with our natural beauty and small-town character, have become scarce resources in a crowded world. The Maine brand represents quality, pride, integrity, innovation and craftsmanship — things that the world today needs and wants more of. These are Maine’s competitive assets in the new 21st-century economy.

If we preserve and enhance these unique assets, if we can develop and attract the right kinds of businesses — from biotechnology to alternative energy, from new forest products to specialty foods — it will offer a truly sustainable prosperity.

This means high-quality, high-paying jobs for our generation and the next. It means a thriving and innovative business climate, so that our young people want to stay here and raise their own families. It means that if we make the right choices, the 21st century is Maine’s century. It means: Our time has come.

God bless Maine, and may her and your spirit together provide the light around the world for a brighter future for all.

Governor’s Budget Includes Plan to Consolidate School Districts

On Monday, January 8, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron outlined the details of Governor Baldacci’s proposal to reduce the number of school administrative units and central offices in Maine from 152 to 26. The proposal is part of a broad effort by the governor to reorganize central office administration to save money, gain efficiencies and to improve education at local schools.

The Local Schools, Regional Support (LSRS) Initiative, unveiled by Baldacci last Friday, is a comprehensive education funding and reform package that includes more than $170 million in direct tax relief in the first two years, as well as a quarter-billion dollars in state and local savings in the first three years of implementation, starting July 1, 2008.

According to Gendron, the LSRS Initiative would close no schools and result in no teacher layoffs. Rather, its focus is on streamlining central office administration.

“We are talking about shifting resources from central office administration to the classroom to achieve excellence in education for every student in every classroom in every local school,” Gendron said.

Gendron said the LSRS Initiative is the culmination of years of reports and commissions, including the Brookings Institution report and one from the Maine Children’s Alliance, that have hit home with the same recurring theme: Maine’s educational system is top-heavy with administration due in large part to the multiple small school districts throughout the state.

Several of those commissions, including the Governor’s Task Force on Increasing Efficiency and Equality in the Use of K-12 Resources created by Baldacci in 2003, and the more recent Select Panel created by the State Board of Education, included membership representing all the key stakeholders: school administrators, municipal officials, business people, parents, and others.

“I don’t think the people of Maine want to wait any longer; I don’t think they want another study commission,” Gendron said. “They’ve spoken loudly about reducing spending, and they’ve spoken loudly about the need for improved outcomes in the classroom.”

“This is one of those times when spending less will actually get us more,” she added. Gendron said more centralized administration will result in a more cohesive and consistent approach to instructional methods and understanding of the Maine Learning Results standards. It will allow a smaller group of superintendents to meet regularly with the commissioner and better coordinate efforts like professional development.

In addition to local property-tax relief, the savings generated by the administrative restructuring will allow for reinvestment in students and teachers, says Gendron. The laptop program in grades 7 and 8 would be expanded through to 12th grade; professional development will be better coordinated; and more than 15,000 students over four years who are eligible for Pell grants will now receive an additional scholarship, averaging $2,000, to any public college or other post-secondary school in Maine.

Speaking to the new governance structure, Gendron said regional school boards that look a lot like existing School Administrative District boards would oversee educational policy in each of the 26 regions. The existing 290 school boards across the state would remain for a transition period in an advisory capacity. Each region would determine a structure for local advisory councils, either at the existing school board level, or at each school, to serve in a supporting role for education at each school, and as a voice for school-specific concerns.

According to Gendron’s office, the LSRS Initiative includes two significant sources of savings. The first is more than $170 million of new state money in the next two years going to local education in order to achieve the 55-percent goal for the state’s share of local education costs. Baldacci has pledged to veto any legislation that does not include a requirement for that money to go back to local property taxpayers as was originally intended with the passage of the Property Tax Reduction Law (LD1) two years ago.

The second source of savings is the administrative restructuring itself. Those savings would start in the fiscal year that starts July 1, 2008, when the new regional centers would be up and running. In the first three years of implementation, the restructuring is expected to save almost a quarter billion dollars — $109 million in local savings and $132 million in state savings, representing the locals’ 45-percent share of education costs and the state’s 55-percent share.

Some of the state savings would be rolled into programs such as the laptops expansion and the post-secondary tuition scholarships. Local savings would be expected to go back to taxpayers.

Another feature of the LSRS Initiative is an increase in the student:teacher ratio at middle schools and high schools to 17:1 to match the existing elementary-school ratio. That shift would result in the loss of about 650 teaching positions, but no teacher layoffs. That’s because roughly 1,500 teachers are lost each year to voluntary attrition.

“Districts will hire fewer new teachers in the first year of the initiative, but no layoffs will be necessary,” Gendron said.

Under Baldacci’s plan, the three Regional Administrative Centers in the midcoast would include the following towns:

Region # 11 Belfast: Troy, Thorndike, Jackson, Monroe, Frankfort, Knox, Brooks, Freedom, Montville, Waldo, Searsport, Stockton Springs, Belfast, Swanville, Liberty, Morrill, Searsmont, Belmont, Northport, Unity.

Region # 12 Rockland: Washington, Appleton, Hope, Lincolnville, Islesboro, Camden, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Waldoboro, Warren, Union, Rockport, Rockland, Cushing, Thomaston, Owls Head, Friendship, Saint George, Matinicus Isle Plt., Criehaven Twp., Monhegan Island Plt., South Thomaston.

Region # 16 Bath: Dresden, Alna, Nobleboro, Damariscotta, Bremen, Bristol, Edgecomb, Wiscasset, Woolwich, South Bristol, Bath, West Bath, Arrowsic, Newcastle, Phippsburg, Georgetown, Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, Southport, Westport, Monhegan Plt.

As of now Maine has 152 district administrations and nearly twice that many school districts. Governor Baldacci wants to consolidate school administration in Maine into 26 “Regional Centers,” each with one superintendent and one regional school board supporting schools in several cities and towns.

Why the consolidation of administration?

In brief, this is how the Maine Department of Education explains the Why:

The State of Maine spends more per student than the national average, while paying the lowest teacher salaries in New England. Meanwhile, student achievement, while above national averages, can be even better.

Around the state, we have seen examples of school districts working together to find efficiencies — sharing a specialist, making joint supply purchases to save money, jointly hiring a superintendent.

The Local School, Regional Support (LSRS) Initiative does that on a much larger scale by creating substantial regional efficiencies, and saves approximately $250 million in the first three years of implementation, while focusing on strengthening local leadership of local schools.

The LSRS Initiative centralizes administration, but does not consolidate schools. Education funding continues under the same formula, only with a smaller amount for administration, and larger amounts for various instructional services, including increased teacher salaries to attract the best teachers, laptops in grades 7 through 12, and college tuition scholarships for many students.

Transitioning to this new model will require us to move beyond our traditional view of focusing on town-by-town school governance and instead recognize that we all have a responsibility to provide excellence in education for all children in our state and provide them with the best opportunities and classroom experiences. Together, we can achieve equity of opportunity in every school in every classroom for every student.

How it works—

And, in brief, this is how the Maine Department of Education explains the How:

• Close no schools.

• Maine has 152 district administrations and nearly twice that many districts.

• The Local Schools, Regional Support Initiative merges those into 26 Regional Centers, each with one superintendent and one regional school board supporting schools in several cities and towns. The boards will be governed by representatives from the communities they serve, guaranteeing every parent, teacher and community member a voice in how their schools are governed.

• Streamline purchasing, back office functions, curriculum coordination, transportation, and other administrative duties at existing school districts into 26 Regional Centers (those centers are being based on the geography of the existing Career Technical Centers, which were designed for easy commutability).

• Determine the organizational structure that works best for each region through regional decision-making by a regional school board. Each superintendent will report to a regional board with representatives from member communities.

• Support principals with a local advisory council that includes parents and community members. Retain existing school boards during a transition period to work with schools on creating an advisory structure to strengthen community participation in local schools.


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