Maine Governor Seeks Sweeping Consolidation of Districts

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Gov. John E. Baldacci of Maine has called for a dramatic restructuring of his state’s education bureaucracy in a proposal that would eliminate hundreds of locally elected school boards and scores of superintendents and replace them with 26 regional boards and schools chiefs.

Gov. Baldacci, a Democrat re-elected to a second term in November, is pledging that his overhaul would save nearly $250 million in the first three years—money that the state would steer back to local schools to hire principals, buy laptop computers for students, award college scholarships, and expand professional-development programs for teachers.

“It’s saving money and improving our strategies for raising achievement,” said Susan A. Gendron, the state education commissioner. “For example, by having only 26 districts rather than 290, we could meet on a monthly basis with all the superintendents and with all the curriculum coordinators to talk about our standards and best practices, and to get agreement on what our academic outcomes need to be.”

The plan already has drawn skepticism from administrators and school board members.

“I think right now we are all wondering how creating these super-districts would save money and improve things for our students,” said Kim Bryant Bedard, the president of the Maine School Boards Association and a member of the local school board in Kittery. “We are already collaborating with other cities and districts to be more efficient.”

‘Unions’ in Place

The reorganization is part of Gov. Baldacci’s two-year, $6.4 billion budget proposal for Maine. It arrives amid mounting public support to reduce property taxes, which are used to pay for local schools. The governor is pushing to win legislative approval this spring so that a shift to regional authority over public schools could start by July 2008.

Maine has 195,000 students and 290 school districts, each with an elected school board. Many are in rural parts of the state and enroll a small number of students. In many cases, such districts have formed a “union” with neighboring districts to share a superintendent and central-office administration.

Under Gov. Baldacci’s proposal, called “Local Schools, Regional Support,” Maine’s school districts—one of which now has just seven students—would be reorganized into 26 regions. Each region would be headed by a superintendent and other central administrators and be governed by an elected board. Local school boards would remain, but would be rechristened as advisory panels that would work closely with school principals.

The new, regional school boards would each comprise five to 15 elected members, who would be responsible for setting budgets and other policy.

Statewide, there are 152 superintendents. Most of them would lose their jobs under the reorganization scenario, although state officials so far have not said how many other administrative jobs ultimately would be eliminated.

New Boundaries

The regions would follow the same boundaries used now to govern Maine’s vocational education program. The regional districts would vary in size from 1,800 students to nearly 20,000, said David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

But in Ms. Bryant Bedard’s view, “these regions don’t make any sense. Some of us could be driving an hour just to be able to see the superintendent.”

Ms. Gendron said momentum for the proposal started building months ago with the release of three reports, including one from the Washington-based Brookings Institution, which concluded that Maine’s school administrative ranks need streamlining. Maine also has one of the highest taxation rates in the nation.

Currently, Ms. Gendron said, Maine spends $346 per student for administrators; the governor’s plan would drive that spending down to $186 per student.

“The national average is to have one school district administration person for every 750 students,” said Mr. Connerty-Marin. “In Maine, we’ve got one for every 350 students.”

In New Jersey, lawmakers are debating a similar consolidation plan on a pilot basis. Rural Gloucester County, which has 10 districts, is seen as a likely candidate for the program, said state Sen. Bob Smith, a Democrat who is sponsoring the measure.

Vol. 26, Issue 19, Page 17

Published in Print: January 17, 2007, as Maine Governor Seeks Sweeping Consolidation of Districts
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