Today I attended a public hearing at the Maine State House regarding Governor Paul LePage’s efforts to subvert Maine voters and deny the funding to public school that was already approved by voters. The Appropriations and Educations Committees hosted the hearing about his proposed budget. Over 70 people signed up to testify in opposition; not a single person testified in favor.
During my MSW program, I interned with a state legislator for one summer. However, this particular experience was new to me. My internship had consisted largely of answering constituent emails. So I learned a great deal from my first public hearing
First, I learned that legislators do not know how to remain quiet. If one of them says something, every single one has to repeat the same thing in a different way with another slight detail tacked on before the group can move on. Consequently, every comment or question by one of the two dozen or so legislators at this hearing turned into 30 minutes of two dozen people trying to make sure they each get to say the same thing, too.
Second, apparently legislators are incapable of reading. Someone – I think the commissioner of the Department of Education? - had to read out loud, line by line, a 21 page document. It had been distributed to all legislators and I’m sure a copy is made public somewhere – if not, it should be! – but he had to read the damned thing. And his reading style…well, I kept hearing “Bueller? Bueller?” Ferris never would have stayed awake during this part. It took over an hour.
Throughout that document as well as during presentations by other official people, legislators asked questions, even though at the very beginning two or three of them had repeated and echoed that the legislators would have a future session in which to ask detailed questions. And if one asked a question, they all had to ask it.
After two hours and at least two interludes of six people in a row saying “We should really get on with this” in six different ways, we moved into the public testimonies.
I was number 43. So I had a long wait ahead of me.
As the public testimonies commenced, the next thing I learned was that school superintendents are snazzy dressers, on my side of the school funding fence, and absolutely boring as all get out. I am guessing kindergarten teachers never become superintendents, because if they did, at least one would have spoken in something other than a monotone about something other than charts and figures. We all would have gotten in touch with our inner spirit animals or something. Or at least made a picture of what love looks like and how much we love school. Maybe we would dance in purple pottamus tutus or something. Not reciting charts that were already printed up for the legislators’ future perusing pleasure! But that’s evidently what you learn to do in school superintendent training.
See, I did research on this testifying business prior to making the effort, and there is evidence that lawmakers at all levels of government are more likely to be impacted by the human interest side of things than having statistics hurled at them. So I grew increasingly antsy – as did the appropriations and educations committee members – as the suits and ties droned on. Not a single one of them followed the three minute rule, either, making it that much more painful.
When it got interesting was when the “regular” people started talking. We had ed techs, ESL teachers, special ed teachers, social workers, and one lady who really stands out in my mind, a special ed and ESL teacher who moved here from Indonesia in 1974. These were the people I wanted to listen to, and I am thrilled I got to listen to some of them. I would have stayed after my own testimony had I been able, but by then it was after 3pm and I had to drive back to Belfast to pick up my children.
But I did my purple pottamus best before I left, reading the following to the bleary eyed committee members:
“Senator Hamper, Representative Gattine, Senator Langley, Representative Kornfield, and Members of the Appropriations and Education Committees:
My name is Jessica Falconer. I live in Belfast, and I am here to testify in opposition to the Governor’s proposal to underfund our public schools.
I am a clinical social worker and I see most of my clients in the Searsport schools. I’d like to tell you about a high school aged client I’ll call John.
John has lived in rural poverty his whole life. Alcoholism is generational in his family, but John is determined to break the cycle. He frequently parents his two younger siblings and is determined that all of them will take advantage of everything the public school has to offer. He has encouraged his elementary aged sibling to participate in the robotics program as well as the school play. He has encouraged his middle school sibling, the athlete of the family, to participate in sports, and he tells me that he knows that when she is high school aged there are three different education programs at the Waldo County Tech Center that she is interested in.
John himself is involved in theatre and is a member of the national honors society. All three kids excel academically, despite having to rely almost solely on the school nurse if they have lice, the school lunch if they are hungry, and teachers and guidance counselors for emotional and academic support. They stay after school to do their homework. And at least one of the kids – John, my client – does this despite having PTSD as a result of previous family violence.
If we underfund the schools, John and his siblings will fall through the cracks. They will not break the cycle of generational alcoholism. Instead of aspiring to work as doctors helping the poor in Maine, as two of the three siblings do, their time spent in a medical facility is more likely to be for their weekly shot of methadone.
Please don’t let John down.”