December 16, 2017
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School consolidation will take local examples, not just small financial incentives

By The BDN Editorial Board
BDN File | BDN
BDN File | BDN
Kerri Wyman (left) assistant principal at the new Central Community Elementary School talks to students about where to find their classroom on the first day of school in Corinth.
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Gov. Paul LePage is scheduled to unveil his budget for the last two years of his governorship on Friday. One thing that won’t be in the document, the governor has long said, is state funding to pay for superintendent salaries because the governor believes the state has too many superintendents.

While LePage is right to be concerned about education spending, every superintendent in the state could be eliminated — which we don’t recommend, by the way — and it would not make much of a dent in the state’s school funding woes. Worse, allocating less state funding to school districts, with the message that the state is refusing to pay superintendent salaries, will simply push that cost onto local taxpayers.

Likewise, the $3 million in incentives to encourage school administration regionalization, which the governor’s office and the Department of Education announced Tuesday, is helpful. But it is not enough money to truly make a difference unless it is coupled with specific policy reforms that encourage and help school districts to work together to improve efficiency and better serve students.

Legislative proposals to come from the administration and lawmakers may and should fill in the gaps to move beyond financial incentives, which haven’t worked in the past. Instead, communities need models they can adapt to their own school systems to make them more effective.

LePage has had six years to come up with a meaningful plan to reduce school district administration and to direct more state education funding to classrooms to improve student outcomes. To date, his rhetoric has been far more ambitious than any proposals he has put forward.

His administration last year pushed for a $10 million fund for competitive grants to encourage consolidation that lawmakers stripped from the budget. Since then, the governor has continued to complain that the state, cities and towns spend too much on school administration while enrollment drops and student performance lags.

His predecessor, Democrat John Baldacci, had a bold — and heavy-handed — proposal to reduce the number of school districts in the state, and he spent much of his political capital trying to sell it. His initial proposal was to have only 26 school districts across the states — down from 290.

But because the plan was so dramatic, lawmakers and the Baldacci administration immediately weakened it to exempt many districts from the law’s requirements. When lawmakers later eliminated penalties on districts that did not consolidate, many newly formed school districts disbanded. LePage did not oppose the regrowth of educational administration; in fact, he signed into law the legislation that eliminated the penalties for noncompliance.

The individual school districts on Mount Desert Island were especially outspoken in their opposition to the 2007 consolidation law and led efforts to change it. Nearly a decade later, the island’s communities are discussing an island-wide middle school.

For Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, who served on the Legislature’s Education Committee from 2012 to 2016, this shows that consolidation efforts can’t be forced by Augusta. They must instead be homegrown.

It was also helpful, he said, that the police departments in Bar Harbor and Mount Desert merged under unusual circumstances. Forced police consolidation likely would have met resistance, as did forced school district consolidation. The voluntary arrangement, however, has had a positive reception on the island and diminished fears about providing services regionally instead of locally.

Another factor is that it is also becoming increasingly difficult for districts to balance their budgets as costs continue to rise, leading taxpayers in many communities to reject local school budgets at the polls, which then forces deeper cuts.

Lawmakers and the Department of Education can use these budget pressures to encourage communities to adopt regional, cooperative models that have worked in other Maine communities. Financial incentives can help, coupled with the example of proven, homegrown Maine models for delivering education and other government services regionally.

 


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