I am writing to address the recent article by Chris Cousins, “Maine residents revolting against rising education costs as enrollment shrinks.” As a superintendent for three decades, the cost of education has continued to rise, and it is time for all of us to look at creative ways to curb what seems to be an inevitable increase year after year. I am offering five suggestions, some of them relatively technical, all of them doable, if we have the courage and will to truly make the system change.
1. Consolidation. Day after day, I hear Gov. Paul LePage decry the number of superintendents in this state, yet he has allowed newly created regional school units, or RSUs, to deconsolidate. Consolidation will, if approached with fidelity and openness, create areas of great efficiency. It is not just the superintendent’s salary. When five towns come together, as we did in creating RSU 1 in Bath, we were able to effectively eliminate almost one entire central office, including a superintendent, director of special education, many office personnel, a curriculum director and the large costs of operating an office — rent, heat, phone, copiers, paper. The governor could take a great leadership role if he truly wished to eliminate superintendents.
2. Vocational centers. There are currently two models for delivering career and technical education. One is called a region. In this model, the school runs as a separate school administrative unit, or SAU, with a board accountable to a separate board of directors with the same costly infrastructure as described above — separate business manager, curriculum specialist, office costs. The other model places the program under one SAU, and there is no need for separate boards, business managers, curriculum directors and other highly paid personnel. If you look at the cost per pupil for a student from Gorham attending the local vocational center, you will see it costs one-third less than sending students to a regional model. This one shift could save millions, and the governor could introduce legislation tomorrow to make this happen this year.
3. Outsourcing for efficiency. A wise superintendent once told me that on my first day of work, I should take the Yellow Pages and look at all the functions a school does that would be more efficiently managed by companies that specialize. For instance, transportation, food service and building maintenance are three areas that are highly technical, take a lot of time out of a superintendent’s schedule and can be done at a much lower cost with greater quality if done by a company whose mission is only this. Why are schools in the bus-purchasing business, spending millions on a non-asset? Again, if managed and monitored, the services will be equal to or better than those currently being handled by the school district. In addition to lowering the overall costs, it also reduces such costs as workers’ compensation, health insurance, substitutes, sick time and contributions to retirement.
4. One state contract for teachers. It can be done. It has been done for state troopers, state social workers, wardens and other state employee groups. It would streamline the process, save hundreds of thousands of hours and dollars spent on negotiations and would bring greater equity to delivering education in the state.
5. Invest. Yes, I am not talking just about decreases in spending. Let’s invest more in programs such as Jobs for Maine’s Graduates that has a terrific record in keeping at-risk kids in school. For every student who drops out, we lose an opportunity and millions of dollars that person would contribute to the economy to this state. I would invest in preschool education for all 4-year-old children. Universal prekindergarten has shown to pay huge future dividends, at least $7 for every dollar invested. I would invest more money in public charter schools. While my dear colleagues at the Maine Education Association and the Maine Superintendents Association see differently, high-quality public charter schools will attract families to move to this state, decrease dropout rates and energize traditional public schools to sharpen their focus. (Disclaimer: I am one of the seven state charter school commissioners).
Finally, I would invest millions in new school construction. Huh? Yes, families will move to a town with new schools, from all over the country, and replacing our old schools will save a small fortune in heat and upkeep. And, if you incentivize the process by building new schools for towns that consolidate, everyone wins.
William C. Shuttleworth has been a superintendent for three decades, currently is a member of the Maine Charter School Commission and a part-time superintendent on Monhegan Island.