Published Online: June 19, 2007
Published in Print: June 20, 2007, as Maine Moving Ahead on School Consolidation Plan

Maine Moving Ahead on School Consolidation Plan

Law Aims to Slash Number of Districts; Savings Seen

Officials in Maine are about to embark upon a dramatic shake-up of the state’s system of public schools after lawmakers earlier this month gave final approval to a plan to slash the education bureaucracy, an initiative first proposed by Gov. John E. Baldacci in January.

The new state law calls for Maine to shrink from 290 school districts to about 80 through mergers and consolidations—a move that state officials project to save tens of millions of dollars each year in administrative costs. There are roughly 195,000 students enrolled in Maine’s public schools.

Currently, Maine has 152 superintendents, many of whose districts are part of a “union” of neighboring districts that share leadership and central-office administration. Gov. Baldacci, a Democrat, has said the money saved on administrator salaries would be redirected to classrooms. ("Maine Governor Seeks Sweeping Consolidation of Districts," Jan. 17, 2007.)

Consolidation is not mandatory under the new law, but school districts that do not participate face penalties that include having their state funding frozen at current levels and running a higher risk of rejection for construction projects. The law calls for reorganized districts to enroll at least 2,500 students, although some will be allowed to have as few as 1,200. Districts located on islands or operated by tribal governments are exempt. The average district in Maine enrolls 734 students.

Consolidation Highlights

Maine education officials are still working out the details of how to comply with these mandates under the new law intended to streamline school administration.

• 290 school districts would be reduced to around 80.

• Districts must have at least 2,500 students, although some will be allowed to have as few as 1,200.

• Offshore islands and tribal schools are exempt from consolidation, as are “high-performing” and “efficient” districts.

• Reorganization plans are subject to local voter approval.

• Nonparticipating districts will be penalized.

• The new, consolidated districts must be in place by July 1, 2009.

The plan, hotly debated in the legislature and in the public for several months, was approved by lawmakers as a part of Maine’s two-year, $6.3 billion overall budget for 2007-2009 and signed into law June 7.

But whether the state’s small school districts actually merge ultimately will be up to voters in local communities—a group that polls have shown to be evenly split over the issue of school consolidation.

Though lawmakers and Gov. Baldacci pitched the consolidation as a way to reduce mounting property taxes, voters seem to be more interested in keeping local schools under their control, said Mark L. Gray, the executive director of the Maine Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, which is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

“People tend to be opposed to consolidating school districts, particularly because there is a fear that their local schools will close,” said Mr. Gray, whose organization favored consolidation and conducted polling this spring to gauge public support for the plan. “We are worried about those communities that may decide to opt out because of the impact [such refusal] will likely have on dollars that flow into classroom instruction.”

Swift Action Needed

Still, a timeline for local districts to develop reorganization plans has been set, and officials will have to move quickly to meet a December deadline for submitting their proposals to Susan A. Gendron, the state education commissioner. Local referendums will be held as early as January for voters to decide whether to support the consolidation plans for their communities, said David Connerty-Marin, the spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

State education officials will soon host a series of meetings to explain the new law and offer suggestions and technical assistance on how districts should merge, Mr. Connerty-Marin said.

Under the new law, each district must enroll at least 2,500 students, but some will be allowed to enroll fewer if they convince state officials that geographic isolation, transportation challenges, population density, or other circumstances make reaching that number impractical.

Districts that have more than 2,500 students, or are considered to be “efficient” and “high-performing” because of their test scores and ratio of spending on administrators, do not have to submit consolidation plans. All districts, regardless of size, must present plans for reducing their administrative, transportation, facilities, and other costs.

How schools merge and the size and composition of a board to govern each consolidated district will be left entirely to local communities, Mr. Connerty-Marin said.

Gov. Baldacci’s original proposal to shrink the number of school districts from 290 to 26 was scaled back dramatically after local school board members vigorously opposed such a drastic consolidation. Rural lawmakers, who responded to opposition from local school members and some superintendents whose jobs would be at stake, were instrumental in rewriting the plan so that a target number of 80 school districts replaced the governor’s requirement of 26. ("Maine Lawmakers Wrestle With Consolidation Plan," May 9, 2007.)

Calls to the Maine School Management Association, which represents superintendents and school board members, were not returned last week.

Mr. Gray said that teachers and students would see obvious benefits from the mergers, and he hopes that local voters can also be convinced of the advantages of creating larger school districts.

“In our rural areas, we have great difficulty in hiring foreign language and special education teachers,” he said. “Those schools often don’t have the ability to provide Advanced Placement courses either. With more resources to provide those things, the quality of education is going to improve for our students.”

Vol. 26, Issue 42, Page 26

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