The Maine State Legislature has passed a bill sponsored by local lawmakers that will protect area taxpayers against private school tuition charges for non-resident students.
The Maine House of Representatives and Senate passed “An Act to Increase Transparency and Improve Equity in Appeals to Superintendents’ Agreements” June 12 and 13, respectively.
Gov. Paul LePage allowed the bill to become law without his signature.
“This will help the people of Lincoln County and other communities around the state with town academies,” Rep. Mick Devin, D-Newcastle, said in a mass email to district residents.
Devin sponsored the bill with co-sponsors Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville; Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay; and Rep. Ellen Winchenbach, R-Waldoboro.
The issue quickly became a major concern for local officials in December 2012 after the state decided the Central Lincoln County School System would have to pay for two non-resident students to attend Lincoln Academy.
The Central Lincoln County School System, also known as Alternative Organizational Structure 93, incorporates Bremen, Bristol, Damariscotta, Jefferson, Newcastle, Nobleboro and South Bristol.
The towns of the Central Lincoln County School System pay almost $10,000 per year for each of their students who attend Lincoln Academy. Almost all of those funds come from local property taxes.
The parents of the non-resident students – one lives in Boothbay Harbor, the other in Waldoboro – requested transfers into the district to allow their children to attend the private high school in Newcastle.
Maine allows school district superintendents to enter into agreements to allow students with special circumstances to transfer from the district where they live into another district.
A transfer makes a student a resident of the receiving district for the purposes of education funding and requires the receiving district to fund the student’s education, although he or she would continue to live outside the district.
This creates a problem for AOS 93 because it does not operate a public high school and instead pays tuition for students to attend Lincoln Academy or another public or private school of the family’s choice.
In this case, the superintendents of the students’ home districts, Regional School Unit 40 and the Rocky Channels School System, denied the parents’ requests.
Maine law allows parents to appeal those decisions to the Department of Education.
The parents in these cases did so, and Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen granted both appeals.
Previous education commissioners largely deferred to superintendents regarding transfers. Bowen, however, an outspoken proponent for school choice, has granted almost all appeals.
Devin, in a July 19 interview, said he discussed his concerns with Bowen at least twice. The commissioner acknowledged a “funding problem” with transfers into private town academies, but had other ideas for how to resolve it.
“Ultimately, he came up with his solutions, but in both cases, the Legislature agreed with me,” Devin said.
The House of Representatives passed the bill 147 to 0, Devin said. The Senate did not have a roll call vote, but no Senators opposed the bill.
“It was one of the few bills this session that Republicans said ‘This Democrat’s bill is actually right and we can’t stand for this,'” Devin said.
“Everyone was concerned that if we didn’t do anything about the Lincoln Academy situation, that would pop up at all  town academies in the state,” he said.
Devin could only speculate about the reasons LePage, who set a record for vetoes in a legislative session, allowed the bill to become law. He suspects the governor saw the widespread bipartisan support for the bill and felt the Legislature would overturn a veto.
The new law only allows the commissioner to grant appeals when the transfer in question is to a district that operates a public school that includes the student’s grade level.
Thus, because AOS 93 does not operate a high school, the commissioner cannot force the school system to accept transfers of high school students.
Central Lincoln County School System Superintendent Steve Bailey said the new law “will be effective in safeguarding our towns” from responsibility for non-resident tuition.
The school system and its school committees filed a petition for judicial review, a type of civil action, to contest the education commissioner’s decision to grant the appeal regarding the Boothbay Harbor student in February.
The town of Nobleboro paid the tuition of the Waldoboro student for 2012-2013 due to the unique circumstances of the student, Bailey said. The bill will block the transfer next year.
The court case has yet to see resolution, Bailey said. He expects the attorneys for both sides to make final oral arguments in late July in Kennebec County Superior Court and the judge to decide the case and write his decision within 2 to 3 months thereafter.
The Boothbay Harbor student attended Lincoln Academy, Bailey said, although the school system did not pay his tuition.
The student, a junior in the 2012-2013 school year, has attended Lincoln Academy since his freshman year. His parents paid his tuition for his freshman and sophomore years, according to AOS 93’s petition.
Another new law, “An Act to Apply the Standard of Best Educational Interest to Superintendent Agreements for Transfer Students,” will give the school system another avenue outside court to contest the commissioner’s rulings on appeals, Bailey said.
The bill requires the education commissioner to provide the parents of the student and the superintendents of both districts “a written decision describing the basis of the commissioner’s determination that the transfer is or is not in the student’s best interest.”
The law also allows parents and superintendents to appeal those decisions to the Maine Board of Education, which replaces the education commissioner as the final authority on appeals.
Rep. Mary Nelson, D-Falmouth, sponsored the bill. Johnson and MacDonald co-sponsored the bill with several others.