Gov. Paul LePage hit the nail on the head in his inaugural address when he said local control was expensive and a major impediment to streamlining government and saving money.
Take school consolidation. As LePage said at his inauguration, Maine spends too much money on school administration for a shrinking school population. Former Gov. John Baldacci’s plan to do something about it — to shrink the number of school districts, essentially by state mandate — was immediately met with resistance for its heavy-handed approach, especially the penalties to be levied on districts that didn’t consolidate. As a result, local school officials effectively lobbied their lawmakers to continually weaken the law so too little consolidation was required.
Give us incentives and we’ll come up with our own, better plans to save money, many school and municipal officials said.
Now, they have that chance. In his budget proposal, LePage has included $5 million for each of the next two budget years for competitive grants to help consolidate school district administration. The money will be allocated through the Fund for the Efficient Delivery of Education Services, a long-standing, seldom-used account meant to help local schools and governments start up initiatives that will lower the cost of education and increase student achievement. Priority is given to projects that involve two or more entities.
The governor also said he would flat-fund K-12 public education until school districts show him they are saving money through efficiencies and cuts.
The incentive approach is a welcome one, said Gordon Donaldson, a retired University of Maine education professor and long-time critic of the 2007 school consolidation law. But, he said, technical assistance and guidance from the Maine Department of Education would be more valuable, especially to small, rural districts, than financial rewards.
Donaldson is a member of the school board in Lamoine, which is working with the town of Hancock to find efficiencies after both towns in 2013 — along with Ellsworth — voted to withdraw from the 12-town Regional School Unit 24. Help from the department with identifying savings, writing contracts and using technology would benefit such work, he said. It also could bring more partners to the table, which could make it easier to find efficiencies.
The much-maligned 2007 school consolidation law aimed to reduce the then-290 school administrative districts to 80. Almost immediately, the rules were relaxed and many school districts got exemptions from the requirements. Later, many consolidated districts unraveled when penalties were eliminated.
Maine has 242 school administrative units for 492 municipalities, according to the Maine Department of Education. Meanwhile, the number of students in Maine’s public schools is steadily declining. This school year, 184,367 students are enrolled in public schools, ranging from pre-K to 12th grade. In 2006-07, there were 199,467 public school students.
According to an annual review of school statistics by the National Education Association, Maine ranked 26th in the nation in 2013 for the number of public school districts, which the National Education Association counted as 195. The state ranked 41st for the number of public school students.
Maine spends significantly more per pupil on school and district administration than the nation as a whole: $1,191 in the 2012 vs. $779, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Instead of spending so much on administration, LePage, like Baldacci before him, wants more of that money to go to the classroom where it can directly benefit students.
It is important to note that voters had a chance to repeal the consolidation law in 2009 but didn’t. In the November 2009 vote, 58 percent of voters rejected an appeal of the law. At the same time, however, voters in the state’s most rural counties favored the repeal. Those same voters rejected many local school consolidation plans, highlighting continued frustration with the effort.
This leads us to where LePage is today — consolidation, greater efficiencies, whatever we want to call it, remains necessary. The financial incentives the governor proposes in his budget should help, but direct assistance from his Department of Education could be more useful.