Lessons learned about school district reorganization in Maine

By Janet Fairman and Christine Donis-Keller, Special to the BDN
Posted Feb. 08, 2013, at 3:35 p.m.

Editor’s note: Gov. Paul LePage spoke during this State of the State address this week about Maine schools’ high administrative costs. One major education reform initiative attempted to address spending on administrative overhead: district reorganization, under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci. Research teams investigated the effect of consolidation and came away with policy and process lessons that could be applied to potential future reform efforts.

Maine embarked on a bold education policy initiative in 2007 when Gov. John Baldacci proposed, and the Legislature enacted, a law mandating school district consolidation with the goal of reducing the state’s 290 districts to approximately 80. This was the first major effort to consolidate school districts since the Sinclair Act of 1957.

Five years later, the success of this policy is still open to debate.

While the total number of school districts did decline from 290 units in 2007-08 to 164 in 2011-12, many school districts were not required to reorganize, and several that reluctantly consolidated to avoid fiscal penalties now seek to separate from their regional partnerships.

Substantial revision of the law each year, a delay in enforcing the penalties until 2010-11 and the elimination of the fiscal penalties for 2012-13 diminished the authority of the policy and returned Maine to a system of voluntary consolidation and regional collaboration.

The school district reorganization law of 2007 emerged from a context of declining state fiscal resources and increasing education costs. During his first year in office in 2004, Baldacci pursued reform through a task force and legislation that proposed regionalization and collaboration with incentives.

However, the bill was defeated in the Legislature. Several factors then converged, including severe state fiscal constraints, a decline in K-12 enrollment, public demand for tax relief, and flat trends in student academic performance.

At the same time, numerous studies and reports recommended increased efficiency in the delivery of Maine’s K-12 education, both for the purpose of directing a larger portion of funding to classroom instruction as opposed to administration and to increase coherence in educational goals, learning opportunity and quality across the state. But the problem of how to coax districts to consolidate remained.

Historically, communities in Maine have vehemently defended the notion of “local control” in governance and education. While the Sinclair Act of 1957 enticed some districts to voluntarily consolidate through fiscal incentives, the overall trend was steady growth in the number of districts, superintendents and amount of educational spending.

From 1950 to 2000, the number of districts increased by 68 percent; the number of superintendents increased by 33 percent; and K-12 spending per pupil increased by 461 percent (excluding transportation, construction, and debt service and without adjustment for inflation).

The decision to approach district reorganization in Maine through a mandated policy, rapid timeline and fiscal penalties had some negative consequences both for the survival of the policy itself and for outcomes of the policy.

Yet, the policy and the process of deliberation at the local level were successful in reducing the total number of school districts and also had the positive effect of engaging communities in serious conversation to explore or expand collaboration and improvement of K-12 education.

Overall, the ability of communities and school districts to identify mutual interests with other district partners was the most critical factor determining whether districts could successfully partner or not. Leadership from superintendents and other planning members was another significant factor that propelled communities to approve or reject reorganization. Positive and collaborative relationships between some districts facilitated efforts to consolidate.

With respect to policy, the overwhelming consensus was that the approach of a mandate with penalties, short time frame and poor articulation all produced a negative reaction against the policy and led to efforts to repeal or revise the law. The recurring efforts to change the law, together with a general lack of confidence in the state’s education leadership, produced a high level of uncertainty about the fate of the policy, reduced motivation to engage in reorganization work and stalled work in a majority of cases.

We summarize here the broad lessons learned as relevant to current and future efforts in Maine and other states to reorganize the delivery of K-12 education.

Policy lessons:

1. The problem, options and proposed policy solution need to be clearly articulated by state education leaders.

2. Effective communication and persuasion are needed at the state and local levels to build support for the policy, and the rationale should include educational benefits along with cost-savings.

3. Ample time should be allowed for public discussion of options, stakeholder input and consensus-building for the policy.

4. The policy should include a state implementation plan and time to put that framework into place before the districts begin their reorganization work, so the state is ready to support district work.

5. The law should include clear language to guide district reorganization work.

6. Fiscal incentives and start-up funds are helpful but may not be sufficient on their own to motivate districts to consolidate.

7. Penalties can be a powerful motivator for districts to consolidate but may also backfire by creating negative reactions or noncompliance.

8. The policy should avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach and instead allow flexibility for districts to achieve the goal of efficiency in different ways.

Process lessons:

1. Districts need a reasonable time frame for planning and implementation. Changing cultural beliefs and satisfying common interests takes time. The process may take two years or more.

2. The larger the number of partnering districts the more time will be needed for negotiation and planning, and the more difficult the process will be.

3. Regional planning is hard, messy work requiring many hours for district leaders and planning members. How districts approach the process matters. Negotiations may bring communities together or stir up contention and negative feelings.

4. Superintendents play a critical role in assisting the planning process by lending their expertise and providing district data.

5. Positive relationships or collaboration between partnering districts facilitates the reorganization process, but does not guarantee reorganization success.

6. A trained and trusted facilitator who is familiar with the communities can help members stay focused on the task and overcome differences.

7. Leadership from the superintendent and others is critical for building support for reorganization. Effective communication and persuasion are needed.

8. District and community support for consolidation will center primarily on the satisfaction of self-interests to meet fiscal, governance and educational benefits. The desire to maintain some degree of local control in these aspects still runs deep in Maine communities.

While there was general agreement about the need to take some action to curb the rising cost of education, and many people agreed with the governor’s call to action, they did not feel that he made a strong case for using consolidation to solve the problem. What was lacking, in their view, was an effort to build consensus around both defining the problem and proposing a solution.

One legislator described a familiar notion found in public policy literature and practice: “If you’re going to try for major change, you have to either create buy-in to a vision that says we need this change … or we need to create the feeling of a crisis, so people want the change.”

Janet Fairman is an associate research professor in the Center for Research and Evaluation, College of Education and Human Development at the University of Maine. Christine Donis-Keller is an education consultant who served as research associate at the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine during the consolidation study. A longer version of this article appeared in Maine Policy Review published by the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and can be found at http://digitalcommons.library.umaine.edu/mpr/.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/02/08/opinion/lessons-learned-about-school-district-reorganization-in-maine-2/ printed on July 31, 2014