The business parks around Columbus, Ohio, look like business parks most anywhere, with mile after mile of non-descript office buildings lining the suburban streets in seemingly all directions. This isn’t the kind of place where one typically finds innovation in the way schools and school districts do their work, but that is exactly what can be found here.
From the outside, the office building home of the Educational Service Center of Central Ohio, which I visited last fall, could be mistaken for that of an insurance agency or an accounting firm, but inside, the building is buzzing with educators at work. In each of the four large conference rooms, teachers from around the greater Columbus region participate in professional development activities and collaborate to share best practices. There is a lot of sharing to be done. The Service Center serves 28 Ohio school districts, which in turn employ 15,000 teachers working in 450 schools serving more than 200,000 students. The conference rooms, I was told, are in constant use.
The Service Center serves a critical role for the Columbus region’s schools and districts. It is not only a provider of professional development and training for teachers, staff and school leaders, it provides direct services to students, particularly students with special educational and developmental needs, including children with autism. They provide programs for gifted students and operate a College and Career Network that runs college transition and early college programs. The center provides back-office operations for the districts it serves as well, including human resources, payroll and accounting services, grant writing, facilities management, IT services, and bulk purchasing. They even manage, on behalf of member districts, a pool of more than 1,800 substitute teachers.
For the Columbus-area school and district administrators I spoke with, having the center around not only provides them with a huge variety of resources with which to support teachers and students, but the administrative supports it provides means they, as educators and leaders, can focus more time on the most important work — improving the teaching and learning going on in the region’s schools.
The center is an example, one of many across Ohio and the nation, of what Maine should have tried to build in 2007, when it instead launched a school district consolidation effort that had decidedly mixed results. While a number of larger, combined districts were created across Maine as a consequence of the law, other districts struggled with or rejected outright the merger mandate. Several “shotgun marriage” consolidations undertaken solely to avoid state penalties have since collapsed.
A better approach, and one Gov. Paul LePage and the Legislature should work together to enact and implement, would be to incentivize, with substantial multi-year state funding, the creation of regional educational service centers like those found in Ohio and elsewhere. The merger of school districts themselves need not be required as it was in 2007, but districts should be mandated, in exchange for funding from the state, to cede the provision of an agreed-upon set of services to these regional centers permanently. The word “permanent” is key, because absent that requirement, the state runs the risk of simply creating a costly new level of regional government that simply duplicates the work done at the local level.
If done right, the savings from this kind of an initiative could be huge. According to the U.S. Census, Maine spent $511 per pupil on “general administration” at the school district level in 2012, the most recent year for which Census data is available. That $511 per-pupil amount is the highest of any state in the nation and more than double the national average of $202 per pupil. Even if Maine was able to achieve Ohio’s middle-of-the-pack $303 per pupil for district administration, that $208 per-pupil savings, multiplied by Maine’s roughly 185,000 K-12 students, would add up to more than $38 million in savings. And those are savings that can be had and, more importantly, redirected to help schools improve, year after year after year.
Imagine the kind of regional educator development centers that could be built for that kind of money, or the new and improved services to help our students succeed. And it could all be had by simply spending more wisely the money we’re spending now.
The district consolidation effort of 2007 was controversial, for sure, but legislators should not shy away from taking another swing at addressing this issue. Gov. LePage, never one, in my experience, to shy away from much, has already indicated he plans to make the achievement of district-level savings a priority. The Legislature should follow his lead, and they should look to Ohio and other states for models Maine could follow.
Stephen Bowen is Strategic Initiative Director for Innovation at the Council of Chief State School Officers. He served as commissioner of the Maine Department of Education from 2011-2013.