School consolidation not ‘stalled’

Posted Dec. 29, 2010, at 5:21 p.m.

In his Dec. 20 column on the challenges facing Maine’s next education commissioner, Stephen Bowen has aptly described many aspects of the education landscape in the state: While our students score well above the national average in national tests, the percentage of students graduating, going on to college, and graduating from college should be higher.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bowen then strays off his path in order to lash out at the school administrative reorganization initiative, which he labels as “failed” and “stalled” when neither could be further from the truth.

Barely three years after the law first passed, Maine has reduced the number of school districts by more than one-third, from 290 to 179, and local efforts at further consolidation continue. Another 22 districts are pursuing reorganization plans, including three that are not required to but see the value of further reorganization.

The final version of the legislation — agreed upon by the governor and the Legislature and supported overwhelmingly by voters in a statewide referendum and in local votes on reorganization plans — was wisely crafted to allow for the unique circumstances of individual districts. So some of the state’s largest districts, already able to capitalize on efficiencies of size, were allowed to stand alone (though even these units had to show plans for increased sustainability). Smaller units were allowed some flexibility in size and structure. And some isolated units with unique circumstances, including island districts, were exempted or allowed to avoid reorganization.

In districts that have combined central offices, there have been considerable savings through the reduction of administrative and support positions and other central office costs.

Regional School Unit 24 — Ellsworth and 11 surrounding rural communities – cut its insurance costs in half during its first year of reorganization — saving more than $85,000 on that item alone. The district estimated it would save $400,000 in its first year and even more the following year. Teachers there are sharing resources and best practices with colleagues in ways not possible in the previous smaller districts.

In RSU 10, a rural area that includes Rumford, Mexico and Buckfield, the superintendent and school board identified more than $600,000 saved in its first year just on consolidating the administrative functions, despite start-up costs.

RSU 1, based in Bath, established by a separate law a year before the other RSUs, expanded its offerings of AP courses at the high school, implemented universal pre-K, and enhanced its Gifted and Talented program — all while saving more than $1 million per year by combining operations.

The greatest success of the reorganization effort has been in improved and better-coordinated educational programming. In many cases, districts have taken the best programming of their former separate units and made it available in all schools. Examples have included expansions of after-school programs, music and art, and AP courses, among others. Curriculum is now better aligned, too, so that all students enter high school with similar preparation.

Whatever agenda the next education commissioner pursues, he or she will be able to build upon the work we have been doing to invest in human capital, both students and teachers. We are giving tools to teachers and students in our efforts to improve teacher quality, strengthen opportunities for students to learn through career and technical education, expand use of technology in teaching and learning, and implement systems of intervention to keep all students on track.

I am glad that Mr. Bowen recognizes the importance of carrying on several initiatives begun by this administration, including adoption and implementation of the national Common Core standards and a new data system that will allow us to better understand the successes and challenges students, schools, districts and the state face so that we can provide targeted support.

As I prepare to welcome my successor as commissioner, I hope that the current climate that supports greater accountability at all levels and which demands continued investment in building the capacity of teachers and students will continue and lead to long-term sustainable improvements in student achievement.

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