Consolidation Transition

Posted Sept. 08, 2009, at 6:22 p.m.

Key to the concept of pushing Maine’s school districts to consolidate with their neighboring districts was the belief that school administrations would be more efficient. The idea was that administrators in the merged districts would take on larger domains — overseeing more teachers and staff, more buildings, more students — with the same size, or nearly the same size bureaucracy. This is how taxpayers were to reap savings.

But if merged districts essentially keep two of every type of administrator — superintendent, curriculum coordinator, transportation, maintenance and food service director — by making one of each an assistant, what has been achieved? One Bangor area district started this school year — the first, post-consolidation — with a superintendent, assistant superintendent, director of special services, two assistant special education directors and a curriculum director. The district serves about 1,500 students.

Eliminating jobs is a tough and painful business, but in the face of declining enrollments and tough economic times, it is necessary business. The private sector has endured this transition in recent years, as jobs at many businesses are eliminated or left unfilled when people retire or leave. The supervisors who remain take on more responsibility and learn to become better managers. The same result should be seen in consolidated school districts.

Parents and district employees also should brace themselves for the reality that buildings will be closed in the coming years. This was not included in the consolidation law, but the portfolio of school buildings these new larger districts now have give administrators the option of moving students around where they can best — and most efficiently — be taught. That will mean some schools, particularly smaller elementary schools in rural corners of districts, will close. When school administrative districts were formed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the same downsizing occurred.

There is another growing pain consolidated districts may be seeing. Those that have not retained two of every administrator probably have picked one transportation or special education director to oversee the new district. The administrator is suddenly responsible for supervising a much larger domain. A better process may be to post the opening as a new job, and consider, for example, the two food service directors in the two merging districts for the position, but also allow outside applicants to seek the job. This sort of due diligence in hiring the person best able to manage the new, larger district is what taxpayers deserve.

These are challenging waters for new consolidated districts to navigate, but not unprecedented. A pragmatic business-like approach must be applied if the savings, which are real, are to be found.

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