Study: School consolidation partners report reluctance, pessimism

Posted Oct. 28, 2008, at 9:25 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Communities are doing what they have to do in order to comply with the state’s school consolidation law, but are doing so reluctantly, under compulsion and with little optimism about the final outcome.

That’s the conclusion of a study of five proposed regional school units completed earlier this year for the Penquis Superintendents’ Association by the Center for Research and Evaluation in the College of Education at the University of Maine.

The study, funded by the Penquis association, reflected the views of members of five regional planning committees selected from existing school units that were required to consolidate and that would have nearly the 2,500 minimum enrollment required by the law. Those RSUs represented seven of the nine superintendent regions of the state, but did not include any of the proposed RSUs represented in the Penquis Superintendents’ Association.

Under the consolidation law, Maine’s 290 school units will be reduced to about 80.

Researchers found that those charged with planning the new school districts questioned the mandate and were skeptical about potential cost savings and educational benefits. The study, titled “Perceptions and Progress: Early Findings from a Study of School District Consolidation in Maine,” also showed that 46 percent of the RPC members interviewed last spring said it was unlikely their community would approve a regional school plan in a referendum.

“Both interview and survey data indicate a low level of support for mandated district consolidation, skepticism about potential cost savings and educational benefits of consolidation, and low confidence in the sustainability of the mandate among RPC members and superintendents,” the researchers said in the report which was released last month.

“Taken as a whole, these findings suggest the five RPCs felt compelled to comply with the law and avoid the financial penalties, but conducted the reorganization work reluctantly and without optimism about the outcomes of consolidation,” the report said.

The most skeptical participants came from smaller communities that feared a loss of control and higher costs for education, the report noted.

The survey attributed the lack of support for consolidation to four key factors:

    Pressure of mandated deadlines left little time for building the rationale and support for regionalization in the general public or education community.

      Lack of confidence that school district reorganization actually will occur given previous reversals by the state on other significant policy initiatives.

        Disbelief that consolidation would save money or improve education quality.

          Threats to local control of schools and the loss of school choice in communities that now can decide where to send their students to high school.

          The study of the five regional planning committees included too small a sample to accurately predict behavior statewide, according to Walter Harris, the director of the research center. Harris said, however, that the study did reliably reflect the views of the participants and did provide clues about the perceived obstacles to school consolidation.

          Despite the reticence on the part of committee members, Harris noted that the plans for consolidation around the state were moving ahead.

          “Despite the lack of confidence, it’s happening,” he said. “We’ll know more as the voters get into the act, but people, in fact, are pulling their plans together.”

          Voters in towns included in 17 proposed districts will get to cast ballots on the proposals next week. The commissioner of education has approved 17 plans that are scheduled to be on the ballot in member communities for the Nov. 4 elections. The commissioner already has approved 34 alternative plans that did not require voter approval. Plans for another 23 proposed districts are in varying stages of preparation.

          Those efforts have generated a lot of excitement around the new district plans, according to Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

          “We’re seeing a lot of good work being done,” he said. “We’ve seen a mood shift in recent weeks. The plans are coming in, and people are excited about the educational opportunities it’s creating.”

          The current economic crisis and its effect on the state’s fiscal status are also playing a role in that mood shift, he said.

          “People are understanding that, at best, we will be flat-funding education for the next two years,” Connerty-Marin said.

          Communities will have to find ways to preserve quality educational programs with less, he said.

          “Our top priority is supporting instructional programs,” he said. “In order to do that, we have to find ways to save outside the classroom. The system we have now is not sustainable.”

          Connerty-Marin noted that much of the study was done before the Legislature amended the consolidation law last April. Those amendments, he said, removed two major objections to the law by allowing local cost-sharing agreements and alternative operational systems.

          The study’s findings that 46 percent of RPC members felt that their communities would not support the new district plan seemed about right, he agreed.

          “If you say the 46 percent won’t approve it, it says the 54 percent would support it,” Connerty-Marin said. “At least half of them felt that their communities would support it. That confirms what we’ve been seeing.”

          The results are based on interviews with RPC members conducted in fall 2007 and spring 2008 and survey results collected during the fall-winter 2007. Harris noted that the views of the participants did not change significantly between the fall and spring interviews despite the changes to the law made during the legislative session. Some legislative changes did affect the process, if not the members’ views.

          “The Legislature made some changes in the way they handled cost sharing,” Harris said. “That made it easier for some groups to find different ways to share costs. That moved the process along.”

          The center is preparing to conduct another, larger study of the consolidation process beginning this fall. Harris said the preliminary work for the study has been completed and they will begin seeking interested participants in November.

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