The Maine Viewpoint
Editorial opinions from across Maine.
BANGOR DAILY NEWS
A Bitter Pill for Portlanders
A Portland middle school has been the focus of national news stories because a health center there received permission from school officials to offer birth-control prescriptions. But the focus on that action misses the more important story, which is the process by which children end up seeking or being pressured into sex when they are years away from being emotionally ready.
The fact that an overwhelming number of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds do not engage in sexual intercourse suggests that the small minority who do have lives that are anything but normal. There are many possible reasons for this: Perhaps a child is facing abandonment or near abandonment by parents who have substance abuse problems. Perhaps a child is suffering from mental health problems or substance abuse problems. The first question the public should ask of school officials is not whether birth control for sexually active students is available, but what kinds of counseling services and other help are being offered for children who are clearly in need of support.
It's worth noting, too, that the school-based clinic is not offering anything that many private doctor's offices do not already offer. Physicians may urge young women to seek the permission from their parents before obtaining the pill, but that doesn't mean they always will. When they do not, denying them birth control doesn't mean they will stop being sexually active. Governor John Baldacci expressed the concern of many parents recently when he said of the situation, "I appreciate local officials trying to address a need in a medically appropriate way. But these are children, and an appropriate balance must be struck between addressing the troubling situation that a small number of students find themselves in and reco-gnizing the important role that parents and other family should play."
Clearly, the need to offer birth control to children is a sign of failure - for the child and for family, school, and community. According to the Associated Press, the three middle schools in Portland reported seventeen pregnancies during the last four years. But that's not counting miscarriages or terminated pregnancies not reported to the school nurse. It's fair to assume the number is higher and, of course, hardly restricted to Portland. But the failure came before the need for birth control arrived. If Maine is disturbed by the idea that a small percentage of its middle-school children are having sex, it should be eager to understand why. Chances are excellent that the reason will turn out to be far more than mere hormones.
PORTLAND PRESS HERALD
Cleaner Future for Maine's Air
The certainty factor finally pushed an Ohio utility toward a cleaner - and brighter - future for its coal-fired power plants. American Electric Power Company (AEP) recently struck a deal in a pending lawsuit to invest more than one billion dollars in new pollution-control equipment for its midwestern power plants serving five million people. The Columbus, Ohio, company said it settled rather than face the risk of incurring further costs during litigation.
In addition to fixing up its coal-fired plants, AEP will also pay a fifteen-million-dollar fine and contribute sixty million dollars toward cleaning up the mess made by its plants.
The development is good news for clean-air advocates - including the attorneys general of several eastern states - who have been trying to get the operators of coal-fired plants in the Midwest to bring those facilities in line with modern standards. Many midwestern plant operators have exploited loopholes in the Clean Air Act to keep plants operating without the latest pollution technology.
Closing those loopholes has been the goal of a number of lawsuits, some of which include the state of Maine as a plaintiff. Not only are states and environmental groups battling companies dragging their heels on modernizing power plants, but states have also had to fight the federal Environmental Protection Agency over whether the Clean Air Act requires coal plants to be upgraded.
The AEP settlement is significant in itself. It will take 1.6 billion pounds of pollution out of the air each year through 2018. While the settlement is aimed at mitigating acid rain caused by coal burning, cleaning up the plants should help with other pollution problems, including ozone and mercury.
This matters to Maine because acid rain, ozone-causing pollutants, and mercury contamination are problems here. Many freshwater fish in Maine contain high levels of mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Acid rain pollutes our lakes, and ozone is a persistent problem here, especially on warm summer days. But AEP is not the only midwestern polluter, and Maine and other states still have a way to go to make others comply and get the federal government on board with full enforcement of the Clean Air Act.
What this case shows, however, is that when states persist, they can create the conditions whereby it is the sounder course for a business to comply and clean the air rather than fight and operate amid uncertainty. Over time, midwestern coal plant operators should see that the future of coal lies not with finding ways to skirt pollution-control requirements, but
instead with finding ways to burn it more cleanly.
KENNEBEC JOURNAL, AUGUSTA
Our strongly held values of equity and fairness have, at times, led to a propensity to spread investments across sectors or geographies rather than focus our limited development resources on the area, program or sector with the highest economic return or likelihood of success." -Laurie Lachance, President and CEO, Maine Development Foundation.
That was one of the conclusions Lachance made in a 2006 study of thirty years of economic development in Maine. It's phrased in a respectful, academic style, so we'll translate it for those of us layman who don't have advanced degrees in government-ese: We give everyone a program to make them and ourselves feel better, but it doesn't do much good because it's spread too thin and too wide.
Lachance - a former state economist who should be declared a state treasure for her consistently thoughtful and objective analyses - was the lead speaker at an interesting conference recently that shed some light on the question, "What is Business Friendly, Anyhow?"
The Augusta law firm of Doyle & Nelson brought together economists, legislators, economic developers, and others, including former Governor Angus King, who, by the way, has not lost his touch for delivering the telling anecdote with a special brand of Down East humor, even though he's from (far) away (Virginia).
A lot of good points were made, but one of the key ones needed only a day or two to be demonstrated by a real live
example. The point was the one made by Lachance about poor investments; the example was provided by a state government commission. The name of the commission should have been a warning signal: "The Commission to Develop a Strategic Priorities Plan for Maine's Young Children."
That's like saying, "The Motherhood and Apple Pie Commission of Good and Generous People that Only a Meanie Would be Against."
Guess what this commission wants to do? All right, that was an easy question, and you surely came up with the answer: Start up a new bureaucracy and spend $20 million on it.
Usually, no one but a cranky editorialist or a suicidal fiscal conservative will wave a red flag over anything that's "for the children." But this time a down-to-earth state legislator - one with pro-child credentials - beat us to it.
Representative Kim Silsby, a Republican from Augusta and a member of the commission, pointed out that Governor John Baldacci has asked state agencies - and local governments, too - to streamline. "How do we ask for additional money," she said, "when we're asking to eliminate funds in some other agencies."
Yippee, three cheers and hurrahs to Silsby. She gets it - and she's no meanie.
That's not to say there isn't a valid idea behind this proposal: that investment in early childhood development is the right thing to do and will pay off down the line. Attorney General Steve Rowe is a committed and consistent advocate of this idea, and no reasonable person could disagree with the well-established research that supports his views.
But - and here's the message that isn't getting through well enough yet - good ideas don't always need more government spending, more government agencies, more government jobs. And we're a state that needs to watch its spending. We need creative ideas for reallocating dollars to the best and highest use, not simply adding more budgets and more layers. Those ideas need to come as part of a solid, long-range plan for investment in the state, not as part of most recent one-shot-deal to fix the latest thing we've decided is a problem.
The legislature created this commission, and we suspect some legislators sincerely support it and others, the ones with their feet on the ground, knew right off the bat this was going to lead to another bill that can't be paid. But they threw Rowe and company a commission to take the heat off for a while and look good while they were doing it.
Which brings us to another point in Lachance's analysis: Too many studies that say the same thing. Here's an idea that will score political points across the board: The Commission to Develop a Strategic Priorities Plan for Maine's Young Children should make its next order of business to disband. Instead, members should work with the current multitude of government and nonprofit agencies to help young children.
Imagine the credit they'd receive for setting a good example.
LEWISTON SUN JOURNAL
Bringing Bad Teachers to Light
When the Board of Licensure in Medicine revokes or suspends a physician's license in Maine for criminal or other activity harmful to patients, the public is told. When the Maine Criminal Justice Academy revokes or suspends a certification of a police officer for criminal or other activity harmful to the public, the public is also told.
In these cases, we know in great detail when and why licenses and certifications are revoked or suspended. Why, then, should we not know when and why the certifications of teachers are revoked or suspended? Educators, holding fast to a 1913 teacher privacy law, argue that dissemination of this kind of information is harmful to the profession as a class. That it makes them look bad.
What makes them look bad is hiding that information from the public, shielding unprofessional conduct in our schools. Public disclosure protects the credibility of doctors and police officers because it demonstrates that these professions police themselves and hold their members accountable. We have some assurance that if doctors and police officers engage in professional misconduct, they are disciplined, providing further assurance that others in these respective professions who maintain their licenses and certifications in good standing adhere to professional conduct.
All twenty-four of the Maine Board of Licensure in Medicine's disciplinary actions taken against nineteen doctors so far in 2007 are online, listed alphabetically, and easily searchable. Many of the revocations and suspensions are for substance abuse addictions and failure to pursue treatment, so the public has access to the status of doctors' licenses and can make health-care decisions based on that information.
We don't have that accountability in the teaching profession and we need it. Our children need it and teachers themselves need it.
In 2001, a year after Maine adopted its mandatory fingerprinting and background law for all school employees, the state police reported that 1,324 of those employees had some kind of criminal background. That means that in the first full year of this program, at least 6 percent of all people employed in our schools carried criminal backgrounds. We just don't know who these people are. Although constitutional to gather the data on school employees, Maine law prohibits the release of specific
What Maine does wrong, Vermont gets right. The Vermont Department of Education Web site lists - in detail - teacher revocations and suspensions alphabetically by name, school, and reason. It doesn't detail every complaint ever lodged against a teacher, but lists only those in which there was an investigation and absolute finding of wrongdoing.
It is not a pretty list. A music teacher who had sexual contact with two female students. A technical school teacher who slapped a student. An elementary school teacher convicted of domestic assault and OUI. A high school teacher who smoked pot with students and was later convicted of OUI and leaving the scene of an accident. An elementary school teacher who sexually assaulted a male student and manufactured child pornography. A high school teacher convicted of smuggling drugs. An elementary school teacher taping a student's mouth closed.
In Vermont, bad teachers are exposed. In Maine, we protect their secrets. And that's wrong.
The process Maine has in place for public disclosure of misconduct in medical and law enforcement professions can work for educators. It's a matter of accountability, of eliminating predators from our classrooms, of making certain that bad teachers are forced out of the profession.
MAINE SUNDAY TELEGRAM, PORTLAND
Time to Set Some Limits
A fatal crash on Long Lake this past summer has made the danger of high-powered speedboats on Maine rivers and lakes a big issue. But the response from the state legislature at this point appears to be a little small.
Representative Richard Sykes, R-Harrison, has proposed a bill limiting boat motors to five-hundred horsepower or less on Long Lake, the site of the accident in Harrison that took the lives of Terry Raye Trott, of Naples, and Suzanne Groetzinger, of Berwick. The operator of the boat, Robert LaPointe, Jr., of Medway, Massachusetts, has been charged with manslaughter and is awaiting trial.
Regardless of the outcome of this criminal prosecution, it is reasonable to ask whether a thirty-four-foot high-
performance boat with twin 435-horsepower engines had any business speeding across a waterway like Long Lake. But if the boats aren't suited for Long Lake, it is also reasonable to ask if they would be appropriate on other waterways that may be even smaller and more heavily used.
Clearly, a comprehensive look at the types of watercraft allowed on rivers and lakes throughout the state is what is called for. Restrictions should not be placed locally, only following a fatal crash.
The bill also calls for better enforcement of existing boating laws at Long Lake, including hiring a summer warden during high-traffic periods. Again, it makes a lot of sense, but why Long Lake only? Don't boaters in other areas deserve the same protections?
The Long Lake crash drew attention to concerns people who use inland waterways have had for some time. The legislature should take the whole state into account when considering changes to boater safety rules next year.