December 14, 2017
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LePage increases pressure for school consolidation

By Christopher Cousins and Michael Shepherd, BDN Staff
Updated:
Ashley L. Conti | BDN | BDN
Ashley L. Conti | BDN | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage
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AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage issued a sweeping executive order on Monday calling for a new push toward school district consolidation.

LePage’s order reflects his often-repeated goal of cutting administrative costs in schools and is backed up with bills that are en route to the Legislature from the Department of Education.

The Republican governor signed the executive order on Monday, but it was posted to his state website on Tuesday. It directs the Maine Department of Education to take three main steps:

— Propose legislation in 2017 that would encourage “regional education service agencies” to share education programs and services.

— Propose state-level borrowing to support construction projects that ease the way for regionalizing public schools.

— Identify unused general purpose aid — which is the money the state spends on public schools — and establish a competitive process for it to help schools find new operational efficiencies.

Efforts to consolidate Maine’s public school administrations were a major initiative of LePage’s predecessor, Gov. John Baldacci, but the Democrat’s efforts largely failed to result in substantial consolidations.

Since then, LePage has said repeatedly that Maine has too many superintendents and spends too much on administration. The Department of Education followed LePage’s executive order Tuesday afternoon with the announcement that it will make available $3 million in competitive grants for districts to consolidate operations.

“We hope to see ambitious proposals that serve Maine students and free up resources that can enhance educational opportunities,” said Robert Hasson, acting commissioner of the Department of Education, in a written statement.

Steve Bailey, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association, reacted with optimism to LePage’s executive order, though he said he wants to see more details.

“Forced school consolidation isn’t the answer, but incentives to share regionally have great promise,” he said in a prepared statement. “There already are regional efforts underway and we will work with the governor to come up with proposals that make sense.”

The executive order is one of several moving pieces that foreshadow another major education reform push this year by the second-term governor.

The budget

During his first six years in office, LePage has used his biennial budget proposals to see-saw spending as well as propose major new policy initiatives. The governor is due to propose his final biennial budget on Friday and has offered few hints about the details, other than to say there will be substantial cuts across state government.

In October, LePage said during a radio appearance that he will propose cutting all state funding that supports superintendents.

“If a school district wants to have a principal and a superintendent, the locals will have to pay for it,” said LePage.

That means the cost of school administration would be pushed to the local level if the proposal survives legislative scrutiny. Many of LePage’s proposals in the past have failed at the hands of lawmakers.

In 2015, for example, LePage proposed spending $10 million over two years to create a competitive bid process that encouraged school consolidation, but that money was amended out of the budget by the Legislature. LePage later vetoed the state budget for a host of reasons.

The bills

Bills that will be under consideration by the Legislature during the next two years are still being written, and most of them won’t be ready for weeks or months. However, the Legislature’s Revisor of Statutes office has released a list of bill titles proposed by executive branch agencies, including the Department of Education.

Among the bills on that list are “An Act to Support the Regionalization of Education Services and Costs” and “An Act to Authorize a General Fund Bond Issue to Facilitate Innovative Approaches to Regional School Facilities.”

LePage’s administration also proposed the creation of a single statewide teacher contract, as opposed to the current system of local school boards negotiating contracts. That would be a public school consolidation of major significance.

Rob Walker, executive director of the Maine Education Association, the teachers union, said his organization has not taken a position on that proposal but could support it if it means more pay for teachers.

Walker said a bill that failed in 2015, which among other things sought to set a minimum teacher salary of $40,000 per year, will be revived this year and could be implemented in conjunction with a statewide teacher contract.

“If the proponents of a statewide teacher contract are truly interested in raising teacher salaries, we might be on board,” said Walker. “We are worried about how this might be rolled out. … A statewide teacher salary could be used to suppress salaries.”

Walker said the MEA has invited LePage to its Feb. 4 board meeting in Augusta to discuss the issue.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in an email Tuesday that the governor’s office was still considering the request.

“The governor has publicly requested the MEA work with him for years, to no avail,” wrote Bennett.

Following the money

One provision in this week’s executive order that will irk some lawmakers, including Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, is the clause that calls on the Department of Education to identify “the general purpose aid for local schools costs and identify funds that will not be dispersed as anticipated.” It’s unclear what that means, exactly, because all general purpose aid is supposed to flow to public schools.

A similar issue erupted in April 2016 when lawmakers noticed that the Department of Education planned to issue $11.2 million less in state aid than the more than $1 billion that had been budgeted. LePage initially refused to answer questions around the issue that were posed by Hubbell, who was a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee at the time. In August, the department explained the discrepancy.

Hubbell, who has been moved to the budget-writing Appropriations Committee for this legislative session, said he and others intend to closely monitor whatever general purpose aid funds don’t flow directly to public schools but that LePage’s proposed incentives will be well received.

“The overall intention, I think we all agree with,” said Hubbell. “There should be an incentive to regionalize. … I would just like to see a detailed explanation of how they’ll come up with the $3 million.”

Hasson said Tuesday afternoon that the $3 million for the grants resulted from construction bonds that have been delayed and money that was set aside for districts that did not eventually qualify for sudden and severe funding adjustments.

“There is a clear appetite across Maine to discover new, efficient ways to increase educational opportunities for students,” said Hasson in a written statement.

Renewed focus on reform

Public school reform was at the top of LePage’s priorities when he took office in 2011, resulting among other things in the legalization of publicly funded charter schools in Maine. He said at various times in 2016, when he spearheaded several initiatives aimed at easing student debt, that it would return to the forefront of his attention. These new initiatives, paired with funding questions following the passage of a referendum in November that will pour more money into public schools, make that a certainty.


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