AUGUSTA — A bill authorizing the state to negotiate a statewide teachers contract got a chilly reception at a public hearing Thursday, while backers said it would save districts money and stabilize teacher pay.

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.

“If all of our teachers are expected to produce the same results – a high quality education for all Maine kids – why are we not compensating them equitably?” bill sponsor Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, asked members of the Legislature’s Education Committee. “We need to shrink the hiring gap that exists between poorer and affluent communities. I think this will help.”

But 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.

The union president added that they were skeptical about negotiating with the state.

“We do not believe bargaining for salaries and wages with a governor that has been so vehemently opposed to collective bargaining in Maine is a good idea,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley.

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.

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 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.

Another bill before the Legislature would increase the statewide minimum teachers’ salary to $40,000.

Education Commissioner Bob Hasson said pay equity for teachers would improve the quality of education for students.

“Unfortunately, many schools in Maine, especially in rural and disadvantaged districts, struggle with high turnover among teachers because they are unable to compete with salaries in wealthier districts and other states,” Hasson said.

However, committee members pointed out that even with a statewide contract, wealthier districts could simply offer higher salaries and pay for them locally – continuing to leave poorer districts at a disadvantage.

Kilby-Chesley also noted that under the current formula, the state gives more money to poorer communities and less money to wealthier communities. If the state paid all salary and benefit costs, poor communities could receive less money from the state, while wealthy communities would get more.

“I do not hear people asking for this,” said Lisa Quatrale, a teacher at Dexter Regional High School. “We want local control and we want the state to fund our schools appropriately so we can pay our teachers the best we can and provide the best education possible to our students.”

After being peppered with questions about possible implications of the bill, Pouliot acknowledged that the idea was complicated and there were many unknowns about what kind of end product such a negotiation might produce.

“I wish I could come to you with all the answers, but I don’t have them. Sometimes the fear of the unknown holds us back,” he said. “We could get to the end and say this is a bad idea. I say, just explore it.”

But he also rebuffed the idea from one committee member that the bill be amended to simply authorize a study.

“No. I’m not interested in just standing around and talking about it,” Pouliot said.

The bill will next be discussed by the committee in a work session.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine