A legislative panel narrowly opposed a bill Tuesday that sought a statewide teachers contract, even after the bill’s author watered it down to make it voluntary.

“I’ve been trying to listen to all of you and your concerns,” Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, told the members of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in Augusta. “I’ve conceded a lot.”

Pouliot amended L.D. 864 to start as a “pilot project” at schools in economically disadvantaged areas and to made it an opt-in proposal instead of a mandatory statewide contract.

With little discussion, the committee voted 6-5 against the amended bill, which now goes before the Legislature.

Gov. Paul LePage called for a statewide teachers’ contract in his two-year budget, saying it would be a way to ensure rural areas could recruit and retain teachers.

Pouliot echoed that idea Tuesday, calling it a “wage equality” bill.

Under L.D. 864, local school boards and superintendents would still hire teachers. But once they’re hired, the state would pay for salary and benefits based on a contract collectively bargained between the state and the Maine Education Association.

During the public hearing, opponents, including the MEA, said the bill doesn’t provide any guarantee that starting teacher pay would increase, takes local control away from districts and does not spell out how the state would pay for it. It also would end the current funding formula, under which the state gives more money to poorer communities and less money to wealthier ones. If the state paid all salary and benefit costs, poor communities could receive less money from the state, while wealthy communities could get more.

Primarily, opponents pointed out that wealthier districts could still add a premium to any baseline contract salary agreement, perpetuating wage inequality between wealthy and poor communities.

Opponents also said that if the bill’s supporters wanted to support a fairer wage, there was another bill before the Legislature that would increase the statewide minimum teachers’ salary to $40,000.

The average starting teacher’s salary statewide is $33,207, with a low of $30,005 in Aroostook County and a high of $35,831 in York County, according to a Portland Press Herald analysis of Maine School Management Association data.

According to federal statistics, the average salary for elementary and secondary teachers in Maine was $50,229 in 2015-16, putting the state 33rd nationally. The national average was $58,064 and Maine’s average teacher salary was well below all other New England states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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