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Published in Print: February 14, 2007, as Maine School Consolidation Plan Under Fire

Maine School Consolidation Plan Under Fire

Governor sees savings and greater efficiency; critics warn of closures.

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For Maine Gov. John E. Baldacci, consolidating the state’s hundreds of school districts into a network of just over two dozen “Regional Centers” makes educational and fiscal sense. Paring the administration, he argues, would let the state and local superintendents concentrate on student achievement—and save $250 million in the first three years.

But anxious educators throughout this sprawling state fear that Gov. Baldacci’s proposal would sweep aside local control, cost hundreds of administrators their jobs, and force schools in some of the smallest, most isolated districts to shut down.

Both views were on full display here at a marathon hearing last week at the Augusta Civic Center, which drew a crowd of more than 500 for 11 hours of testimony, most of it slamming the governor’s proposal.

It’s now up to the legislature—which is considering six alternative proposals of its own—to decide whether and how to overhaul Maine’s fragmented school administrative structure.

“The governor did us a favor by kicking the chicken coop the way he did,” said state Sen. Peter Mills, a Republican who ran against the Democratic governor in last November’s election, as he presented an alternative consolidation bill at the Feb. 5 public hearing organized by state lawmakers.

Centralized Offices

The governor’s plan, titled “Local Schools, Regional Support,” would replace the state’s 152 superintendents and 290 locally elected school boards with 26 central offices, each run by a superintendent, other administrators, and a 15-person regionally elected school board. ("Maine Governor Seeks Sweeping Consolidation of Districts," Jan. 17, 2007.)

The regions are based on the state’s 26 existing career-technical education centers, which were designed to be easily accessible geographically for students.

Though drastic, the idea outlined by Gov. Baldacci in his second inaugural address is not unprecedented. Arkansas and West Virginia, for instance, have consolidated many of their districts in recent years, and officials in a number of other states, including New Jersey, South Carolina, and Vermont, are looking to do the same.

The Maine initiative grew out of a series of three reports, by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, the Maine Children’s Alliance, and the state board of education, which argued that the state’s declining student enrollment will not be able to sustain the present level of administration. Researchers estimate that the state’s school-age population, which peaked at 225,000 in 1980, will drop to 182,000 by 2010. The current statewide enrollment is 198,000.

“Maine is at least as much ‘Administrationland’ as ‘Vacationland’ given the large numbers of especially state and school district administrative personnel that seem to populate the state’s expensive bureaucracies,” said the Brookings report, “Charting Maine’s Future,” playing off the “Vacationland” slogan that has long appeared on the state’s license plates.

What’s more, proponents of change say, nearly two-thirds of local property taxes go to the top-heavy system. By restructuring, Gov. Baldacci argues, the state could free up millions of dollars for other educational purposes and for tax cuts.

A public-opinion survey of 500 residents taken last month by GrowSmart Maine, a nonprofit advocacy organization aimed at reducing government growth, found that 51 percent of respondents favored cutting the number of school administrative units in order to provide tax cuts; 15 percent opposed a reduction in the number of superintendents.

Although less discussed by its critics, the governor’s plan also calls for $30 million in college scholarships to public universities in the state, a $19 million expansion of the state’s laptop-computer program to grades 9-12—the program already serves grades 7 and 8—and $7 million in appropriations to provide principals for the 151 schools that do not already have them.

Emotional Subject

Though more than 600 teachers would be laid off under the initiative, according to the governor, the proposal clearly has hit a nerve among administrators—of the nearly 175 people who testified at last week’s hearing, most were superintendents, principals, and school board members wearing orange-and-black “NO” stickers.

But it’s the thought of school closures that drew some of the most emotional testimony. Breaking into tears, Suzanne Carver, a resident of Beals, Maine, told the legislative panel that she made the 160-mile trek from her island fishing community of 700 for her 3-year-old son, Noah, who was born blind.

“[My husband and I] were told that the best thing we could do would be to have him in a small school where he could thrive,” she said in a Down East accent. “I just can’t imagine how it would be if he were in a large school where he’s just a statistic.”

Gov. Baldacci has sought to allay some of the fears on display at the hearing.

“We have too much invested in those schools to want to close them,” the governor said in an interview, referring to infrastructure such as broadband Internet service that is already in place at small schools around the state. Plus, he said, his proposal would not include money for new principals and parent-teacher organizations if his administration thought the state’s smallest schools were likely to be closed.

As a safeguard, he said, should a regional board decide to shut a school, the community would have the option of voting to keep it open. The school would continue to get its per-pupil allocation from the state department of education, and the community would be responsible for paying any additional costs to keep the school running. Such an arrangement already exists in many communities across the state, according to the governor and education department officials.

Doubts Linger

Many small-town residents were not convinced, though.

“Yes, Gov. Baldacci is right: His plan doesn’t directly close schools. It just paves the way for regional boards to do so,” Christopher Crowley, the acting principal and a teacher at Beals Elementary School, told legislators.

Such reaction is neither surprising nor new, said Susan A. Gendron, the state commissioner of education.

In 1957, the state passed the Sinclair Act, which reduced the number of districts from more than 400 to the present number. According to Ms. Gendron, public reaction to that act was similarly strong.

For the time being, legislators and the governor say they are open to other ideas for cutting state spending.

“They don’t like this and they don’t like that. Well, what do they like?” Gov. Baldacci said, referring to his plan’s critics. “If they have another way of saving $250 million, I’d like to see it.”

Funding for K-12 education would amount to just over $2 billion, or about 32 percent, of spending in Gov. Baldacci’s proposed 2008-2009 biennial budget.

Members of the legislature’s joint education committee now will begin the task of discussing the governor’s proposal and the alternatives floated by lawmakers.

The members plan to pass their recommendation to the appropriations committee next month.

PHOTO: Terry Lux, the principal of Shead High School in Eastport, unfurls more than 10 feet of paper showing the organizational chart of a Florida school district to Maine lawmakers during a hearing on plans to overhaul the state's school administrative structure.
—Kevin Bennett/Bangor Daily News

Vol. 26, Issue 23, Pages 17,21

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