AUGUSTA, Maine — The president of the Maine School Superintendents Association questioned Gov. Paul LePage’s numbers and methodology after the governor criticized the state’s public education system for having too many administrators.
In a breakfast speech Wednesday to the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce, LePage chastised Maine’s public education establishment for being top-heavy. The governor said the state has 127 superintendents to educate 186,000 students, which he compared unfavorably to Florida, where 57 superintendents oversee the education of 2.7 million students. He also reiterated his “double dippers” complaint about school department retirees, in this case superintendents, who return to work after qualifying to collect their pensions.
MSSA President Paul Stearns, superintendent of School Administrative District 4, which comprises six small towns in the Guilford area, said LePage’s comparison of superintendents in Maine to their counterparts in Florida lacks validity. Superintendents in Maine, especially those in smaller districts, are much more “hands-on” than superintendents in Florida, who assume more political and managerial roles while overseeing education for an entire county, according to Stearns.
“It’s easy to take national data and misconstrue it,” Stearns said of LePage’s remarks. “Using that same rationale, Maine would only need a governor for about 12 days a year.”
State and federal mandated reporting requirements are the same for large and small school districts, Stearns said. Arguing that Maine superintendents complete work that’s delegated to lower-echelon administrators in Florida, Stearns said, “We could have a county superintendent, but someone else would have to do the job at the local level. We do not have a plethora of administrators.”
LePage also failed to differentiate between superintendents who work full time and part time.
According to the Maine School Management Association, the state has 94 full-time superintendents and 33 part-time superintendents, “some of whom work only a few days a year” to allow small districts to comply with a state law that they have a superintendent. In total, they earn $11.47 million, according to a salary report posted on the Maine Department of Education website.
The governor did not offer any specific initiatives to reduce school administrative costs or his suggestion for an appropriate number of superintendents. LePage’s comments reflect his focus on putting “teachers and students first” and “getting more money in the classroom,” Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s press secretary, said Wednesday.
At least one Maine superintendent agrees that the state could get by with fewer administrators, with the caveat that the governor must do more to make it possible to shift spending from administration to instruction.
“I believe we have too many superintendents,” said William Shuttleworth, who served as superintendent of both school districts when Bath and four neighboring towns in School Union 47 consolidated to form Regional School Unit 1 in 2008. “If the U.S. government can create systems to send checks to veterans and Social Security recipients nationwide, Maine state government should be able to achieve greater efficiencies that would reduce the need for local administrators.”
After more than 40 years as an educator, Shuttleworth, 65, retired earlier this year, one year into his tenure as superintendent of the Five-Town Community School District and SAD 28 in the Camden area. He now oversees education for four Monhegan Island students. In that role, he must complete the same “convoluted and complex” reports he did as superintendent of larger districts.
“The governor and [education] commissioner’s office could help streamline reporting to create efficiencies,” he said, suggesting a state template that smaller districts could use for mandated reporting and centralized curriculum development.
Bennett said the governor would be open to proposals like Shuttleworth’s. “The LePage administration has said if there are rules or regulations that the districts need to be relieved from — with the focus of getting more money into their classrooms — then, certainly, they are going to be looking at those issues and making sure they will benefit students,” she said.
Shuttleworth and Stearns dismiss LePage’s claim that “double dipping” makes schools less efficient.
“The notion that retired superintendents are taking jobs from qualified younger candidates is ludicrous,” Stearns said. “The number of superintendents qualified to do the job is critically low,” to the point where local search committees looking to recruit new superintendents often hire retirees as interim leaders because the few candidates they attract lack experience.
Shuttleworth, who identified himself as a “double dipper,” argues that the practice saves money. “The longer you stay in the system, the retirement benefit would be larger,” he said. “The few years extra you work by double dipping creates a savings. It is money that you’ve earned. It’s not like you didn’t deserve it or earn it.”
The number of Maine school administrators has been a target of criticism for years. In 2006, Bruce Katz, a Brookings Institution researcher who helped write the “Charting Maine’s Future” assessment of the state’s assets and liabilities for GrowSmart Maine, called school administrative costs excessive and a drain on Maine’s economy. He quipped that the state should change its nickname from “Vacationland” to “Administrationland.”
LePage’s predecessor, Democrat Gov. John Baldacci, made school consolidation the centerpiece of his second term. His administration’s efforts to reduce the number of Maine school districts to 80 fell far short. The Maine Department of Education lists 164 school districts on its website.
A 2006 American Association of School Administrators survey showed that 71 percent of school districts nationally had 2,499 or fewer students, but that those districts account for only 18 percent of all students. The Baldacci administration set 2,500 as an appropriate size for Maine’s consolidated school districts.