GUILFORD, Maine — The state’s school district consolidation effort is similar to a teacher giving a student an assignment that both know little about, yet the student is expected to complete the assignment within deadline or flunk.
That analogy was implied during a public hearing Thursday on a draft reorganization plan for School Administrative Districts 4 and 46, Harmony and Willimantic.
In a move to rein in administrative costs, the state directed school districts and unions more than a year ago to form regional school units and submit a reorganization plan to the Department of Education by Jan. 30, 2009, or face penalties.
Regional committees across the state were handed more than 60 pages of a consolidation law and later a multitude of amendments because the law was so “inept” from the start, Dale Huff, an SAD 4 regional planning member, said Thursday. “Every time we asked [state officials] a question, we were told, ‘I don’t know; we’ll have to get back to you,”’ he said. “It’s been a horror show.”
The reorganization effort has met mixed reviews. The DOE recently announced that more than half of Maine’s school systems that plan to consolidate have submitted plans. At the same time, petitions seeking repeal of the law signed by more than 61,000 people were submitted Friday to election officials by the Maine Coalition to Save Schools.
“The state is feeding the media a slanted version of how glowing this consolidation is being accepted, about how well the process is going,” Charlotte Violette, a member of the SAD 4, SAD 46, Harmony and Willimantic regional planning committee, said Thursday. Violette said that even though the community has worked diligently on its plan, that doesn’t mean the committee condones it.
Regardless of support, schools that fail to submit an acceptable plan face penalties; in SAD 4’s case that would mean $133,000 based on this year’s funds, according to SAD 4 Superintendent Paul Stearns.
Thursday’s public hearing in SAD 4 was to have been followed by a Nov. 4 vote on the plan, but the vote has been rescheduled to Jan. 27, according to Stearns, because the plan was returned by the state, citing technical errors, he said.
Stearns said the committee refined the plan and returned it to the state for review, only to learn that the representation on the state’s review team had changed. “The review team is now 100 percent different than it was before, so the state has an entirely new set of eyes and philosophies reading the new plans that are coming in,” he said.
With so many unknowns and factoring in the state’s financial climate, Stearns said, the Penquis Superintendent’s Association has asked the state superintendents association to seek legislative support for a moratorium on penalties.
Although the premise of the consolidation is savings, many are skeptical. “It’s a laugh, it’s a joke,” Violette said of any projected savings.
No school can be closed, no teachers can be dismissed and no students displaced under the plan, according to SAD 4 committee member Paul Bridge.
“So we have a problem of reorganizing education without affecting buildings, teachers or students, and we also have a problem saving money with those things off-limits,” he said Thursday.
Bridge said the committee found that SADs 4 and 46 have cooperative agreements on up to eight items on which they already work together to reduce costs.
“Most of the items we found where we could reduce costs could be done on a cooperative venture probably easier than having a new RSU,” he said. “It appeared to us any savings would equal out by transition costs and additional costs.”
Stearns estimates it will cost the RSU $39,500 the first year, $14,500 the next year, with a possible savings of about $69,500 the third year, for a total estimated savings over the three years of $500.
If the plan is adopted, teacher contracts will be combined in 2011, Stearns said. If all of SAD 4’s teachers were included now in SAD 46’s contract, it would cost SAD 4 $110,000 more than it now does.
While the draft plan recommends one superintendent for the RSU, Stearns pointed out that Heather Perry, Willimantic’s superintendent, has a contract through 2011 that has to be paid. In addition, the plan recommends one transportation director and one maintenance director for the new organization. The people who now hold these positions in SAD 4 and 46 not only supervise their employees, but also plow snow, repair roofs and fix pipes, Stearns said.
The plan also recommends one special education supervisor for the region, but Stearns suggested that may not be wise because of the increasing numbers of special needs students.
In four years, SAD 4 has lost 21 percent of its student population and now has 728 students, Stearns said. “You cannot lose 21 percent of your student population and have your cost per pupil stay low,” he said. Yet since the Essential Programs and Services model was put in place by the state, SAD 4 still has a lower cost per pupil, now $7,265.
“My opinion, I think [the state’s] math is flawed; EPS is the culprit in this thing,” Stearns said.
To show the unfairness of the EPS formula, Stearns said the state increased SAD 4’s subsidy by 21 percent over the four years the formula has been in place. Yet Falmouth, which spends $3,000 a year more per pupil than SAD 4, had its subsidy increased by 66 percent, taking it from $3.9 million to $6.5 million. Falmouth has a family household income of $67,000 compared to SAD 4’s $27,000. It would be towns and communities such as Falmouth, York, South Portland and Mount Desert Island that would benefit if SAD 4 were penalized, Stearns said.
“I think it’s absolutely unconscionable that our state would penalize us,” he said. “We were a model of efficiency for their new model EPS program.” That the money would go from SAD 4 children to children on Mount Desert Island, which spends $10,000 more per student per year than SAD 4, is unbelievable, he said.
If consolidation saves money, it should be shown in districts such as South Portland, which has about 3,000 students, Stearns said. “That’s about as consolidated as you can get,” he said, yet South Portland’s per pupil cost is $10,511.
It is really problematic, Stearns said, because SAD 4 voters don’t want to incur a penalty, yet they’re going to “get slapped” through the funding formula.
“It’s not about equity,” Stearns said of the state’s efforts.