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Published in Print: May 9, 2007, as Maine Lawmakers Wrestle With Consolidation Plan

Maine Lawmakers Wrestle With Consolidation Plan

Various approaches all aim to streamline administration.

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With a little more than a month to go in their legislative session, Maine lawmakers continue to wrangle over Gov. John E. Baldacci’s push to consolidate the state’s hundreds of local school districts and streamline their school administrations, with no clear agreement in sight.

The Democratic governor’s original plan, titled “Local Schools, Regional Support,” would have replaced 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.)

But that plan, which Gov. Baldacci said could save the state and local governments nearly $250 million in its first three years through increased efficiency, ran into fierce opposition, particularly from rural districts and from educators and administrators who feared their jobs would be lost.

Now, after hearing six alternative proposals, legislators are weighing a pair of plans that would result in far less consolidation than the governor had initially suggested. As of late last week, both were being considered and modified by a joint appropriations committee.

The alternatives stick to the principles of the governor’s original consolidation plan in that they aim to reduce unnecessary administration and maximize the use of resources in the classroom, said David W. Farmer, a spokesman for Gov. Baldacci’s office.

“The bottom line is, we have too many superintendents for the number of students we have,” Mr. Farmer said. “It’s just not a sustainable situation.”

In their first attempt at an alternative, members of a joint education committee came up with a proposal that still would have left the state with 100 to 120 school districts, said David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the state department of education.

‘Rural Caucus’ Proposal

A smaller, bipartisan working group has since come up with a somewhat stricter plan, which would require each district to have at least 2,500 students, with some exceptions for districts located on islands and in other geographically isolated areas. Districts also would be encouraged to collaborate on matters such as transportation or special education, Mr. Connerty-Marin said. That plan would go into effect in July 2008.

But last week, a small group of legislators calling themselves a “rural caucus” came up with their own plan, setting similar size limits in most areas and putting even more emphasis on collaboration between districts to achieve cost savings. That plan would not go into effect until July 2009 and would allow areas to opt out, though at the risk of losing federal education aid.

Although the state education department does not have a position on either plan, Mr. Connerty-Marin called the small working group’s plan “encouraging, in terms of administrative efficiency,” but added that it was not yet final.

He said the department has some concerns, however, about “the achievability of savings and the sustainability at the local level” of the rural-caucus plan.

Mr. Connerty-Marin also said the education department would be willing to work with local districts if and when they are called on to choose partners under a consolidation plan.

“With very few exceptions, the likely partners already make sense,” he said.

Complicating the debate is the potential loss of federal funding as a result of consolidation, according to Mary Kusler, the assistant director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va.

Last year, 115 districts in Maine collected $1.7 million in grants to districts with fewer than 600 students under the federal Rural Education Achievement Program. Under a consolidation plan, those districts would find themselves too large to be eligible, Ms. Kusler said.

“There’s such a vagueness with what is happening right now at the state level,” she said.

As of late last week, both versions of the consolidation plan were being considered and modified at the appropriations committee level.

Vol. 26, Issue 36, Pages 20,23

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