EDUCATION

Schools opting out of costly, time-consuming accreditation process

Posted March 04, 2011, at 12:48 p.m.
Last modified March 04, 2011, at 2:25 p.m.

GUILFORD, Maine — Some schools across the state are facing such a crisis in their budgets that they are forgoing the long-favored but expensive accreditation process.

Faced with $1 million less in state aid in 2011-12, SAD 4 directors voted recently not to pursue the reaccreditation process through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, or NEASC, at this time. NEASC is the oldest accrediting agency in the U.S.

Last year, SAD 48 directors in the Newport area also opted out of the accreditation process. SAD 48 Superintendent Bill Braun said Thursday that directors felt the district could do the same comprehensive review as NEASC without having to spend thousands of dollars a year.

Still other school officials across the state are re-examining the benefits versus the costs and are looking at other possibilities that would serve the same purpose.

Brewer Superintendent of Schools Daniel Lee noted that in the 1980s, the state ‘’wandered in briefly’’ to accredit schools, and then for some reason the process was dropped. He’d like to see that service restored.

Having the state conduct an accreditation process has been discussed at the state level. ‘’It is something we have looked at in the past,’’ Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said Thursday.

He said accreditation is a local decision. Traditionally most high schools have done it as an outside validation of the quality of their programming and buildings, he said. With the state’s budget constraints, the DOE does not have the capacity to provide those services, Connerty-Marin said.

The cost and time involved in the accreditation process have long been a concern of school officials. In a study on high school accreditation commissioned in November 2009 by the Penquis Superintendents’ Association, the Center for Research and Evaluation at the University of Maine in Orono found that while Maine school officials value the benefits of the accreditation process, there was growing concern about their ability to fund the associated costs. Those costs over a 10-year period were pegged, on average, at about $53,000. The study also found that school officials worried about whether teachers could manage the accreditation workload yet also address pressing state and federal requirements. In addition, school officials worried how they would address problems with facilities identified in the accreditation process.

About five years ago, Brewer residents approved the construction of wings to the high school to add four science laboratories to comply with one of NEASC’s recommendations for reaccreditation, Lee said. He said that if the Department of Education handled accreditation, it would be less likely to recommend some building improvements knowing that school departments could not afford them.

SAD 48’s Braun said his district had been placed on NEASC’s ‘’bad list’’ for noncompliance prior to last year because, among other things, the district’s library wasn’t big enough, students were being taught  in portable classrooms, and the community wasn’t funding the schools at a high enough level.

‘’I’m going to tell you right now, I can’t compare my high school to a high school in Massachusetts,’’ he said, referring to NEASC’s standards, which are used for schools throughout New England.

‘’None of those have anything to do with the quality of education in the schools,’’ Braun said of the deficiencies identified by NEASC. The district’s students go on to attend some of the best colleges in the nation, so it doesn’t matter ‘’if I’m teaching them in a soup can — it’s what are my outcomes,’’ Braun said.

SAD 4 Superintendent Paul Stearns agreed. While accreditation is a valuable process, the fact a school is not accredited has no bearing on most admissions to colleges, including Ivy League schools, he said.

Stearns could find only one college that may not accept students from an unaccredited school. ‘’That was carefully looked into. We certainly didn’t want a student’s future to be jeopardized by that,’’ he remarked. He did note, however, that the lack of accreditation could influence a family looking to move to a region.

There are many values to the accreditation process and the one that rises to the top is the self-study, Stearns said. Since many staff members have been through a self-study, he believes, the district can do a modified version to determine what areas need improvement. In addition, he said, the district may look to an outside entity, such as the University of Maine, to help it with the process.  ‘’What we would rather do, if there is X amount of money, [is] do the things they’re going to tell us we need to do and not pay them to tell us to do it,’’ Stearns said.

Braun suggested that perhaps schools in the region could work together to help one another through the process.

Stearns said state funding to SAD 4 has decreased rapidly in recent years because of declining enrollment and rising state valuations. Eight years ago, the state funded 70 percent of the district’s education costs compared to 52 percent in 2011-12, he said.

‘’Choices had to be made and this is one that a lot of thought was put into,’’ Stearns said. The reaccreditation cost is about $35,000. For upkeep, the next year the district would be expected to pay $7,000 to $10,000. A maintenance charge or dues of about $3,500 a year would be required for the next seven or eight years, depending upon how much work was required through the process, he said.

‘’I hope [SAD 4] folks understand that it really truly is dollars at this point,’’ Stearns said. ‘’We are going to operate next year with $1 million less in state aid than we did three years ago.’’ That $1 million includes a $148,000 penalty the district incurred for not regionalizing its central office.

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