June 19, 2018
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LePage should work with, not against, superintendents

Christopher Cousins | BDN
Christopher Cousins | BDN
Dylan Roberts, a student at Mt. Blue Middle School in Farmington, explains a robotics project he and others worked on that makes it easier to test for salmonella in eggs. Looking on are Mt. Blue student Grace Andrews and Gov. Paul LePage, all of whom attended a celebration of STEM education Tuesday, June 5, 2012, at the State House.

Contrary to what Gov. Paul LePage told the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 19, an excess of school superintendents isn’t the problem with Maine’s public education system. Shifting the focus from the number of superintendents in Maine to more substantive changes designed to help public schools function as efficiently as possible would help LePage achieve his goal of meaningful education reform.

Former Gov. John Baldacci, LePage’s predecessor, made reducing the number of superintendents the centerpiece of a school district consolidation initiative that topped priorities for his second term. As school administrative units consolidated, the number of superintendents decreased from 152 in 2009 to about 120 today, more than 30 of whom work part time.

Statewide education spending on school administration — 3 percent for central offices and 5.3 percent for principals and other in-school administrative staff — constituted 8.3 percent of overall spending for 2010-11, the most recent year for which data is available. That compares to 41.7 percent for “regular instruction,” 14.2 percent for special education and 11.6 percent for building maintenance and operations.

Superintendents, in total, will earn just less than $11.5 million this year, which constitutes almost 0.5 percent of annual school spending, according to the Maine Department of Education. It’s also less than the $12.6 million LePage proposed to cut from state aid to education as part of the $35.5 million curtailment order he announced recently.

While school superintendents are easy targets, especially in a political climate that demonizes bureaucrats, eliminating them all wouldn’t even address the short-term education funding challenge Maine faces. Talking about reducing the ranks of administrators adds a distraction to what should be an educated conversation about school reform.

Instead of alienating superintendents with comments about reducing their ranks, LePage should enlist Maine’s school administrators as allies by tapping their recent experiences finding cost efficiencies within their districts.

For example, William Shuttleworth, who served as superintendent of Regional School Unit 1, which united Bath and four neighboring towns in 2008, found more than $1 million in savings during the district’s first two budgets by combining offices, reducing transportation costs and achieving economies of scale through bulk purchases. At the same time, RSU 1 increased its Advanced Placement course offerings.

Based on his 40 years of experience as an educator, Shuttleworth can suggest a host of ways in which the Maine Department of Education could make it easier for local districts to cut administrative costs. His ideas for state-produced templates that smaller districts could use to file mandatory reports, and for more uniform curriculum development, represent concrete, experience-based proposals to eliminate revenue-draining redundancies.

Paul Stearns, superintendent of School Administrative District 4, which comprises six small towns in the Guilford area, said he plans to propose legislation that would lower education costs by allowing districts to take better advantage of retired teachers, who are available to meet shortages of qualified educators, not “double dip” from school budgets and the state pension fund.

Administrators like Shuttleworth and Stearns have worked for decades to find creative ways to make public education in Maine better. Their experience should be viewed as an asset.

Engaging Maine superintendents more actively in the school reform dialogue would be a step toward shifting the tone from political heavyhandedness — that has left 14 new regional districts created by the 2009 consolidation law facing withdrawal bids — to data-driven collaboration.

Educators, including administrators — not politicians — are the professionals doing the important intellectual and development work for schools every day. They should be invited to play a greater role in Maine’s school reform efforts, not targeted as the problem.

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