Consolidation gets low grades

Posted June 05, 2009, at 9:53 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — While legislators have been gearing up to deal with measures related to school consolidation, an evaluation of the school reorganization effort over the past two years has quietly been circulating among education circles around the state.

Gordon Donaldson, a University of Maine professor who teaches graduate courses on educational leadership and research, has issued a “Report Card on School District Reorganization in Maine” that gives the state low marks across the board on how it has met the goals of the reorganization law.

The report card, he said, is part of an ongoing effort on his part to understand the effects of reorganization and grew out of his involvement in small rural schools and the policy work he does at the university.

The report card concluded that the financial investments and losses far outweigh the achievements of consolidation, and that the law has failed to address matters of educational equity, to sufficiently address matters of taxpayer equity and to address matters of educational quality.

David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, defended the school reorganization process, which he said is working in those new regional school units that will officially begin operating on July 1. He dismissed the report card as a conveniently timed collection of bullets aimed at reorganization by a long-time opponent of the law.

“He has been opposed to the law and he has been very vocal about it,” Connerty-Marin said this week. “It is not surprising that he would come out with a report that suggests that it has not been successful, when he didn’t want it to be passed in the first place.”

Connerty-Marin said reorganization was necessary, more so given the current economic climate.

“In fiscal year 2011 — that’s 13 months from now — education funding will drop by $55 million,” he said. “There’s no way the system we have in place right now is sustainable.”

According to Donaldson, who worked as a facilitator for two regional planning committees during the development of the RSUs, the report card evaluates how well the implementation of reorganization has met the goals of the law, which the Legislature adopted in 2007.

In the report card summary, those goals are: to improve efficiency by cutting costs; to improve equity by distributing costs more fairly among towns and raising the achievement of all students to a common standard; and to increase the quality of learning for all children in Maine schools.

The report card awarded grades in six categories related to those three areas, and included a summary comment as well as supporting information.

Achievement: D

The report states that after 22 months, the reorganization effort has produced minimal consolidation and projected savings. It notes that just 20 superintendent offices will close this year instead of the 76 targeted in the law, and that the projected savings statewide are $1.64 million compared with the target savings of $36.5 mil-lion.

Donaldson also noted that 58 districts did not have to consolidate and now are identical to the old SADs or CSDs.

“These are not reorganized, just relabeled,” he said.

Connerty-Marin noted that the nonconforming districts represent a relatively small portion of the state’s student population. The 111 districts that have not reorganized and therefore subject to penalties have a total enrollment of 23,518 students or 12.3 percent of the state’s enrollment. Of those, 56 units have fewer than 100 stu-dents and 37 of them do not operate a school.

Meanwhile, he said, 98 school units have reorganized into 26 RSUs or Alternative Organizational Structures accounting for 55,451 students or 29 percent of the state’s students. Forty-two units, with enrollment ranging from 1,000 to almost 7,000 students, filed alternative plans to reduce administrative costs.

Projected savings: D

The report argues that planning at the state and local levels overlooked or did not report millions of dollars in new costs that will exceed the estimated $1.64 million in savings statewide from consolidation.

Among the largest of those costs will be equalizing teacher compensation, which Donaldson estimated at $18 million statewide over three years, based on published projections from individual RSUs and from state education organizations. Though an estimate, he said he believed it was a conservative one.

“This is something the state should have done research on before they proposed this thing,” he said.

Connerty-Marin acknowledged that there will be a cost to equalizing teacher salaries and said the state supports higher salaries for teachers. He also argued that equalizing teacher pay would encourage newer teachers to remain in smaller rural districts, instead of moving to larger school districts.

However, he disputed the $18 million estimate, arguing that it is impossible to know what the results of negotiations would be before they took place.

“We have no idea what it will cost for teacher contracts, and neither does he,” he said.

Many of the RSUs are working to find ways of easing the impact of those increases by phasing them in over time, in some cases longer that three years.

Although he noted that some initial savings have been offset by startup costs, Connerty-Marin said many of the new RSUs have found additional savings beyond what they projected as they work through the process of reorganizing.

Compliance motivators: F

One of the most controversial elements in the consolidation law has been the penalties levied on communities that rejected proposed reorganization plans.

The report pointed out that due diligence in many towns determined that projected savings from consolidation were small or nonexistent and that anticipated costs would exceed the penalties imposed under the law. The state will impose more than $6.9 million in penalties, mostly on rural towns which, Donaldson argued, will re-sult in making poorer towns even poorer while their share of state aid will go to wealthier districts.

“The penalties will target some of the most strapped communities in the state,” he said. “This is putting some of the most at-risk students further at risk.”

Connerty-Marin disputed the idea that the penalties put any students at a disadvantage. Although state subsidy will be reduced through the penalties, he said, those districts still have to meet the state minimum allocation based on the Essential Programs and Services formula. The amount spent on education will be the same even though the state subsidy is less, he said.

Also, both the House and Senate this week endorsed a bill to delay the penalties against school districts that don’t comply with the consolidation law. More votes on the measure are pending.

Equity: D-

The report concluded that the consolidation law has increased inequities among Maine taxpayers statewide while making only small improvements in taxpayer equity within 17 new districts. It has not addressed achievement equity at all.

Rural towns that are penalized will lose state funds, according to the report. Often, wealthier towns in an RSU or AOS will pay a heavier share of the costs than will the less-wealthy towns.

Quality: F

The report notes that the law did not require any plan to improve the quality of learning for all students and that the RSU approval process was not based on any plans for educational programming, teaching or assessment.

Connerty-Marin said that as part of the implementation process with the RSUs, a former superintendent, Mary Jane McCalmon, is working with a group of facilitators to assist the RSUs in combining and aligning their educational programs and philosophies. Part of that process, he said, will include looking at enhancing educa-tional offerings such as foreign language and advanced placement programs.

“That’s what’s supposed to happen,” he said.

Effort and investment: C

Maine has expended more than $15 million to consolidate. Mainers have contributed untold hours and energy to examine whether consolidation is a better way.

Donaldson estimated that the state has sent more than $2.4 million to districts and planning committees and spent more than $7.5 million more on RSU and AOS conversion. It also has cost the state and districts another $4 million for such reorganization purposes as legal and financial advice.

Although Connerty-Marin did not have a total available of state expenditures on consolidation, he rejected the report’s $15 million as inaccurate and said actual costs were much lower than that.

rhewitt@bangordailynews.net

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