June 19, 2018
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School consolidation would give local power to state

By Keith Cook, Special to the BDN

Sensible Mainers have the opportunity on Nov. 3 to repeal school consolidation and not allow themselves to be hoodwinked by misguided politicians who have jumped on the consolidation bandwagon with its specious claims of saving millions of dollars.

As for savings, the administration in Augusta simply doesn’t know what to claim. First it was saving $250 million. Remember that… a quarter of a billion dollars? Now that most local Mainers have discovered there are no savings, and, in fact, they will have to spend more, the claims of savings from Augusta have disappeared, and they have shifted to the scare tactic that it will cost $30 million more to repeal the law. This is from the people who couldn’t get the figures right in the first place.

Consolidation of school administration is simply a clever political ploy to pull more power from local communities to the state. The first step was Essential Programs and Services, which pulled funds from smaller schools. Researchers at the University of Maine who studied Maine’s last venture in consolidating schools under the Sinclair Act in the ’50s and ’60s found that administrative costs escalated 406 percent from 1950 to 1980 despite closing hundreds of schools. Overall per-pupil spending also increased to the point where now, 45 years after Sinclair, Maine has the fifth highest overall per-pupil spending in the nation.

Strange as it seems, bigger often costs you more. The state of Hawaii found this when after years of having just one school district and one superintendent for the entire state, administration was costing them too much and in 2003 they formed smaller administrative units. Larger administration tends to beget larger administration whether in schools or corporations.

In many of Maine’s smaller school systems, superintendents fill multiple roles rather than hire more administrators. They are often the curriculum director, food service director, transportation director and even sometimes the school principal and special education director. Otherwise each of those positions needs not only a salary and benefits but an office, clerical assistance and equipment. That is why even though Maine spends $65 per pupil more than the national average on central office administration, we spend $290 per pupil less than the national average on support services.

From 1960 to 2003, 45 major studies of 792 school consolidations reported savings for just four systems. Is Maine’s new law just hubris or sheer deception?

Maine is largely a rural state. The entire state is affected when small communities lose their school and suffer economically and socially. Major research from Cornell University found that communities that have schools grow more, have higher housing values, higher mean family income, and less reliance on welfare. Communities without a school tend to decline. In fact, Thomas Lyson’s research states “money that might be saved through consolidation could be forfeited in lost taxes, declining property values and lost business.” Some small communities have already had to close their schools from the double punch of Essential Programs and Services and consolidation. This business and social issue affects the entire state.

Consolidation into larger schools is educationally inferior for many students, especially the 60 percent to 70 percent in many schools who live in poverty. Why? It is now widely known that the single greatest impact on student achievement is the socioeconomic level of the family. Students from higher income families achieve at higher levels; poverty tends to lower achievement. What is not so well known is that smaller school size actually reduces the impact of poverty on students’ achievement.

Research by the Rural Trust examining 2003-04 MEA scores for every school in Maine has found that the negative effects of poverty on school achievement was reduced, and sometimes completely eliminated, in smaller schools. And the same results were found for every other state analyzed.

And why should you be concerned? One, altruism. It’s the right thing to do to create the best learning situation for all children. Two, poverty perpetuates poverty and costs us all. Three, it doesn’t save us money.

Low income and lower achieving students are more likely to drop out, which also increases the likelihood of drugs, unemployment, crime, welfare, family dysfunction, special education needs and imprisonment. As adults who are not earning there is no income tax paid, no property tax paid, and we pay about $66,000 per year in Maine for each prisoner. Compare that to $9,300 for a student.

Trying to save money by consolidating schools is like trying to save on your heating bill by cutting down all the trees around your house to burn for firewood. Frugal Mainers see through that one in a hurry.

Keith Cook of Waterville is a licensed psychologist and has served as a superintendent of schools, teacher, coach and guidance counselor. He is a founder and former coordinator of the Maine Small Schools Coalition.

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