Gov. Paul LePage again recently railed against Maine for having too many school superintendents. This time, he told the audience at a Chamber of Commerce event in Bangor earlier this month that Maine was the worst in the country when it came to administrators based on population: 127 administrators overseeing 186,000 students.
The state tried to tackle the too-many-superintendents problem in 2009, with a law requiring small school administrative units to consolidate into larger ones. The idea was that fewer, larger districts would mean fewer superintendents and other central office positions. Money would be saved by pooling resources, and successful education programs in one school could be shared with its new district-mates.
Not everyone complied, but in the end, 41 new districts were created and 39 former districts already were big enough to be compliant under the new law. By 2011, only 56 units were not compliant.
But the consolidation effort seems to be fraying. This year — the first when towns are allowed to leave those new districts — nearly one-third of the districts created under the consolidation law have faced withdrawal efforts as member communities seek to leave their Regional School Units and go it alone.
Of the new districts created by consolidation law, 14 faced withdrawal bids from one or more towns in 2012. Additionally, nine RSUs that were simply rebranded by the law, which were functionally the same as their preconsolidation districts, also faced withdrawal bids.
To LePage’s assured chagrin, successful withdrawal bids could mean even more superintendents in coming years.
In total, 38 towns, from Andover to Wiscasset, began the process of leaving their school districts this year. Six of those made it all the way to the final step of withdrawal — a public referendum on secession. Five succeeded.
Frankfort voters chose to leave RSU 20 in November, when residents in Glenburn and Veazie also voted to leave RSU 26. (Another two towns, Starks and Portage Lake, also left their respective districts this year, but those RSUs had been around since before consolidation.) Arundel chose to remain in RSU 21 in a November vote.
Despite the number of withdrawal attempts, a Maine Department of Education spokesman said he doesn’t think those successful withdrawal campaigns are the beginning of a secessionary surge.
Withdrawal from districts always has been allowed, said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the department, but the consolidation law put into place a three-year moratorium meant to make towns give consolidation a chance. Before consolidation, withdrawal campaigns usually failed, he said.
“There’s now a wave of withdrawal discussions, but most of those will not ultimately result in withdrawals,” Connerty-Marin said. “I think it will look a lot more like what it has for the past several decades, which is that most don’t result in withdrawal, but some will.”
The withdrawal process is a long one. First, the town that wants to leave the district has to put an item on the warrant, asking voters whether to pursue withdrawal. (In 2012, four communities — Durham, China, Steuben and Ludlow — rejected withdrawal at this early stage.)
If voters approve, the town negotiates with the district at large to come to a withdrawal plan that both the town and the district can agree to. Then the plan goes to referendum for a final vote. For now, a two-thirds majority is needed to approve that plan, but starting in January 2015, a simple majority will be enough to secede.
LePage has yet to offer a plan for addressing the state’s number of superintendents, a number that Maine School Superintendents Association president Paul Stearns says isn’t a cause for concern anyway, as many superintendents are part-time, working the bare minimum required for small towns to file state-mandated paperwork.
But his criticism begs a question: Has the effort to cut the number of school administrative staff worked? Was consolidation a success?
The per-pupil perks of consolidation
By the numbers, it seems like consolidation has been a success, in that it seems to have saved money for districts. Consider coastal Hancock County, where there are RSUs, an Alternative Organizational Structure and school unions, each representing a less-centralized form of administration than the last.
There, the difference is stark: Four-digit per-pupil education costs for every town in an RSU and five-digit costs for every town that didn’t join.
In the 2010-2011 school year, the most recent for which the state has complete data, the per-pupil education cost for the 10 towns in RSU 24 was $8,951. In the four-town RSU 25, it was $9,629.
In AOS 91 — the towns of Mount Desert Island, Trenton, and a few other islands — the cost to educate a single student ranges from $10,385 in Bar Harbor to $19,848 in Cranberry Isles. In the consolidation holdouts of Union 93 and Union 76 — the towns of the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer-Isle Stonington — per-pupil costs range from $10,752 in Surry to $15,713 in Deer Isle-Stonington.
The numbers throughout the state reflect the trend: Generally, consolidated RSUs spend less per-pupil than other kinds of school districts.
But, as always, the devil’s in the details. The savings to an individual town post-consolidation may be negligible or nonexistent, even if its district pays less on average than the districts that were considered noncompliant.
For example, Ellsworth’s per-pupil education costs were about the same before consolidation as they are now. The city, which has its own schools for kindergarten through high school, ran its own school district before consolidation. In June, it joined Lamoine and Hancock in an effort to leave RSU 24, and the fact that it has a history of comparable per-pupil costs gives proponents of withdrawal hope that it can keep costs down if its withdrawal effort is ultimately successful.
And while some individual towns have seen their shares go up — Prospect and Verona, in RSU 25, have each seen their per-pupil costs grow by nearly $1,600 since consolidation — they still pay less than towns that bucked consolidation.
“Size does matter,” said RSU 24 business manager David Bridgham. He said consolidation has saved the district $240,000 in administrative costs alone every year. In total, he said, the district costs about $1 million less to operate every year than it cost the same towns, combined, before consolidation.
Meanwhile, in the Union 93 towns of Blue Hill and Brooksville, budgets have increased every year since consolidation.
“The efficiencies you get with the economy of scale clearly indicate that per-pupil costs for larger districts are better than those in smaller districts,” Bridgham said.
A lack of local control
So if most communities either broke even or saved money in consolidation, why the push for withdrawal? In most cases, it’s a question of local control, especially for the towns and cities that consolidated against their will in the face of reduced state subsidies originally imposed on districts that didn’t comply with the consolidation law.
The state imposed those penalties in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, but the Legislature reversed course, doing away with the penalty starting this year.
Connerty-Marin said that without penalties, the state no longer has a mechanism to enforce the consolidation law. So those 56 communities who refused consolidation can continue, unpunished, to do so. And towns or cities that withdraw from their districts can do so without fear of becoming noncompliant.
“There’s no more penalties, so there’s basically no more requirement,” Connerty-Marin said. “We’ve stopped keeping track of who is compliant and who’s not.”
Mark Rosborough is the chairman of the Ellsworth withdrawal committee. Many in Ellsworth want to take control of their schools back from the RSU, rather than having to negotiate with the 11 other municipalities that comprise RSU 24. He said it’s unfair that now, after so many towns caved to pressure from Augusta to consolidate, the towns who didn’t won’t be punished.
Rosborough has decried the long process required to withdraw, and said that with perfect 20-20 hindsight, he wishes Ellsworth had simply defied the pressure to join an RSU, or had formed an Alternative Organizational Structure, which would have allowed for more local control.
Jonathan Smallidge is the school committee chairman for Blue Hill, a member of School Union 93 and one of the towns that was considered noncompliant. In his town, it costs $11,231 annually to educate one student. That’s more than $2,000 more than Hancock, which is part of an RSU, pays for roughly the same number of students.
But Smallidge says the rugged individual spirit of small Maine towns creates a drive to maintain control over their schools. There’s a tendency not to join, he said, to go it alone. And that may persist in spite of good arguments for consolidation.
“Maine towns are independent and like to maintain their autonomy,” he said. “Everyone has their own subculture, their own values. We just didn’t see us being dropped into a big amalgam of other schools where we would have had to compromise that individualism.”
Was consolidation a success? It’s tricky
Reading the data and trying to determine whether consolidation was a success can seem like an exercise in futility. If consolidation was good, why are so many towns and cities trying to get out? If consolidation was bad, why are so many schools saving money?
“When I’m asked whether consolidation was successful or not, I say, ‘I don’t know,’” said David Silvernail, director of the Center for Education Policy at the University of Southern Maine. “It looks like it’s working in some cases, but not working in others.”
He said there’s going to be trouble any time a one-size-fits-all solution is imposed on disparate communities. But even if the push for consolidation wasn’t perfect, and some towns and cities are unhappy, he said it’s important to realize that most of the state’s 105 multitown districts did not contend with withdrawal.
“Clearly we’re finding this model is at least open to question,” he said. “But if it were absolutely bad policy, it seems to me that all the RSUs in some fashion would be breaking up. … My read is the real push is in this first year. It’s pent-up concern.”
Silvernail said an effective analysis of Maine consolidation efforts would require concerted, thorough research into each and every community. If any given town seeking withdrawal has a laundry list of complaints, he said, it can be hard to isolate which situations are directly attributable to the creation of the RSU.
“We need to go in to see the ones that have pulled out and which ones have not and see what the difference is,” he said. “Without doing that, we really don’t know how well it worked.”
Despite the wave of withdrawal efforts in 2012 and the lack of an enforcement mechanism, the state still carries the banner of consolidation. People understandably get frustrated about money and about control, said Connerty-Marin, the education department spokesman, but small districts will only face increasing challenges as education and administration become more complex.
“There is no doubt that in some cases, partnerships were made that don’t make sense,” he said. “But in most cases, communities are going to be much better off financially and — more importantly — with their kids’ education, by sticking together.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.