Consolidation penalties are a shameful response

By Paul Stearns, Special to the BDN
Posted Feb. 21, 2010, at 5:58 p.m.

The Bangor Daily News editorial “Consolidation Consequences” (Feb. 10) is the latest in a series of pieces aimed at making people feel good about taking money and opportunities away from impoverished Maine children because of where their parents live. It tells us how the governor made a “hard but logical decision to push local schools to come together.” The editorial tells of “hard truths.” Let me share a few hard truths as well, using data and fact rather than political rhetoric.

Rep. Emily Cain of Orono, chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, was quoted as saying that, “this is the accountability factor” in regard to the $5.9 million in penalties for noncompliant systems. “It was not a surprise, it was not a secret,” she goes on to say.

I would add that it also was not rational, constitutionally sound or based on spending data that are readily available. She should take a moment to listen to her colleagues on the Education Committee and respect their wise decision to delay penalties.

Let’s compare Rep. Cain’s home district and the school system where I live, SAD 4 in Piscataquis County. Our system covers six towns and 220 square miles. Our median family income is less than $30,000.

We closed four small elementary schools seven years ago in order to provide better educational services for our youth. Closing these beautiful schools is agonizing work for a community. We will close two more schools in June and will house 700 students in two buildings on one campus. This results in documented savings of $375,000.

We share special education services with SAD 68 and provide transportation services for Union 60 in Greenville. Our Piscataquis Valley Adult Education Cooperative serves 18 towns and is being used as a model for efficiency both in Maine and nationally. We have a vibrant staff and our use of technology is acclaimed. SAD 4’s 2009-2010 budget is 5 percent over the 100 percent EPS mark, what the Department of Education has determined to be the adequate amount for students to achieve the learning results.

Rep. Cain’s new home RSU has three towns, Orono, Glenburn and Veazie, with a median family income of $52,000. Before consolidating, Orono spent $3,135 more per pupil per year than SAD 4. That would amount to $40,775 in a 13-year student career. The budget for this new RSU now is a shocking 33 percent over EPS. Per pupil system administration costs in Orono are 24 percent higher than SAD 4. Per pupil building administrative costs are 74 percent higher.

There are many more examples. In the past four years, state general purpose aid to education has increased by an average of 134 percent in the towns of York (237 percent), Falmouth (58 percent), Cape Elizabeth (53 percent), Cumberland (64 percent), Yarmouth (128 percent), Kennebunk (41 percent), and Wells (360 percent). These are fantastic towns with tremendous school systems by any measure, but their budgets average 23 percent above EPS.

How on Earth could anyone with a shred of common sense suggest that it would be even remotely appropriate for SAD 4 to send penalty money to units like this all over Maine that obviously have tremendous financial resources? It is shameful. Period. Particularly at a time when the state is not even coming close to its obligation in general purpose aid.

The cost per pupil could be dramatically lower in larger systems. It is not, partly because EPS — via regional salary cost indexing and other adjustments to allocation rates — recognizes and subsidizes personnel contracts with higher wages and vastly more lucrative benefit packages for teachers and administrators, and partly be-cause these communities have higher median family incomes and greater total property valuation resulting in increased ability to pay for services and programs.

The editorial talks of hard choices. At the last legislative session the Appropriations Committee could not muster up the fortitude to find $30 million in a $6 billion budget. Instead they passed that amount to the next Legislature. This shortfall has now grown to more than $400 million. This burden will be directly transferred to locals resulting in increased taxes, budget cuts, or some combination of the two.

It is high time that legislative leadership, and editorial boards, started thinking about the bottom line, rather than a party line.

Paul Stearns is superintendent of SAD 4, which serves the Piscataquis County towns of Abbot, Cambridge, Guilford, Parkman, Sangerville and Wellington.

http://bangordailynews.com/2010/02/21/opinion/consolidation-penalties-are-a-shameful-response/ printed on December 24, 2014