AUGUSTA, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — The Legislature is starting another debate about schools and teacher salaries. They began discussion of a bill Thursday that would require the state to take over the task of paying all teachers.

Currently, teachers are paid by local districts, with contracts negotiated by local school boards. Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta, said he is sponsoring the bill to change to a single, statewide teacher contract and have the state pay salary and benefits for all teachers and ed techs. The state Department of Education said there are roughly 21,000 people working in those jobs now.

Pouliot said changing to a statewide contract would raise the pay for many teachers in more rural, poorer districts.

"We want to make sure a teacher in Pembroke, a teacher in Princeton, a teacher in Portland, get paid for the same hard work they do," Pouliot said.

But Lois Kirby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said the MEA is opposing the bill, arguing it would hurt the long-standing tradition of local control and cooperation between teachers and school boards.

"We would have the state as an employer for salaries and benefits, and we would have the town – the school board, our employer – for everything else," she said. "So it's an opportunity to split the teachers' employer between two different places."

Kirby-Chesley said the MEA is instead supporting a bill to raise the minimum starting salary for teachers to $40,000. Legislators are also debating proposed changes to referendum Question 2, which was passed by voters in November. It added a 3 percent income tax surcharge to incomes over $200,000, with the added revenue designed to increase education funding.

Rep. Pouliot said the statewide teacher contract plan would also significantly increase state school spending and result in the state paying 59 percent of the vista of schools, which would be the highest level in many years.