After months of heated debate in the legislature, public outcry, and backlash from district superintendents and school administrators, the first step in Maine’s sweeping school consolidation plan—districts’ selection of their prospective partners—is done.
Attention now turns to state Commissioner of Education Susan A. Gendron, who will have to decide whether the proposals pass muster before giving voters in communities that are home to Maine’s far-flung school districts a chance to approve or reject them starting early next year.
“Our first task is to review the proposals for compliance with the law,” Ms. Gendron said last week. “Some schools have filed for an alternative plan, and in some instances, we will probably write back to those districts asking for further deliberations.”
The consolidation effort, launched by Gov. John E. Baldacci, aims to combine the state’s 290 school districts into 80 larger districts in an effort to cut operational and administrative costs and to reorganize what advocates of the plan see as a top-heavy system. The new law says each district must have at least 1,200 students, but it recommends that each have 2,500 students or more. (“Maine Moving Ahead on School Consolidation Plan,” June 20, 2007.)
The law allows for exceptions. Among them are island school districts, districts serving American Indian tribes, districts that already have at least 2,500 students, and districts in a “doughnut hole,” which occurs when all the surrounding districts choose to pair up with other neighbors.
Gov. Baldacci, a second-term Democrat, pitched the plan, which will go into effect in July 2009, as one that would save the state nearly $250 million over the three years starting with fiscal 2009— money that could be funneled back into schools through improved classroom technology, college scholarships, and professional-development programs. (“Maine Governor Seeks Sweeping Consolidation of Districts,” Jan. 17, 2007.)
All districts were required to file their consolidation plans with the state education department by Aug. 31. Most districts are proposing to pair up with neighboring districts, and many have weighed long-standing collaborative relationships when choosing merger partners.
“There aren’t a lot of surprises,” said David Connerty-Marin, the spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. “[The districts] have looked at a variety of issues, such as how much each unit spends on education, what kinds of educational programming each unit has, and past experience working together on educational and operational elements.”
Maine school districts have now submitted their reorganization plans under the state’s new consolidation law, which will combine the 290 districts into 80 larger ones. Among the potential mergers:
• Windham (2,856) would merge with Westbrook (2,556) and Raymond (541).
• Brunswick (3,333) would merge with Durham (349).
• Lisbon (1,418) would merge with MSAD #75 (874), which includes students from the towns of Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, Harpswell, and Topsham.
State’s largest districts would remain autonomous.
• Portland (7,068)
• Bangor (4,015)
• Augusta (2,500)
Note: Enrollment numbers are in parentheses.
SOURCE: Maine State Department of Education
Some of the largest districts— including those in the cities of Augusta, Bangor, and Portland— have opted to remain independent and not pair up with other districts. But the Westbrook and Windham districts, which each have at least the requisite 2,500 students, are proposing to team up with each other and with another, smaller district, Raymond.
“I feel, my school committee feels, and a number of citizens in the community feel that there may be an education advantage” to the three-way merger, said Stan Sawyer, the superintendent of the 2,500-student Westbrook school district.
The districts have worked together in the past on numerous projects, such as a special education initiative and grant proposals, and students from the 550- student Raymond and the 2,900-student Windham districts, as well as other districts in the area, attend the vocational school in the Westbrook district.
“There are many opportunities when you take two or three districts together,” said Sanford Prince, Windham’s superintendent. “You’ve got more resources and programs and options.”
For instance,Westbrook offers Chinese-language classes, a program that Windham does not currently have. “Students may be able to criss-cross with different programs and schools,” Mr. Prince suggested.
Similarly, the 3,000-student Brunswick School Department may partner up with its smaller neighbor—the 350-student Durham district.
“We’re very encouraged by the conversations that are starting to happen about the educational opportunities and enhanced offerings for different schools,” said Ms. Gendron, the state schools chief. “That was our hope.”
After the plans are approved by the commissioner, schools will resubmit final merger plans by Dec. 1. Those plans will then be reviewed and voted on by the affected communities beginning in mid-January.
“This is only the beginning,” Mr. Sawyer of the Westbrook district said. “Now we’re going to be breaking down into subgroups to figure out governance, what we do with the existing debt in schools, how we develop the budget, educational programming— there are a myriad of things we have to study.”
His neighbor in Windham agrees.
“It’s been hard,” Mr. Prince said. “Our next challenge will be how to move the community along. But as long as we focus on the kids, that’s what it’s really about.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2007 edition of Education Week as Maine Districts Take Key Step to Consolidation