AUGUSTA – Gov. John Baldacci took lawmakers — and school officials — by surprise in January 2007 when he announced his intention to reduce the number of school administrative units from 290 to 26.
Fresh off his re-election victory, Baldacci gave it a brief mention in his second inaugural, then explained it more fully two days later in his budget address.
“In Maine, we spend $2,000 more per pupil than the national average, and pay our teachers $7,000 less,” he said. “We have 152 superintendents overseeing 290 separate administrative units at a considerable cost.”
He said his “Local Schools, Regional Support” initiative — which would dramatically reduce the number of units from 290 to 26 — would free up $170 million in the first two years to reduce property taxes.
The proposal was part of his new two-year budget, which meant changes to it left the Legislature to find the same savings elsewhere. Some described it as a heavy-handed approach to forcing change at the local level.
And many legislators were torn between what they were hearing from people back home and the changes they knew needed to be made.
“The governor felt there had been so much talk that, unless someone did something bold, nothing would change,” said former Sen. Libby Mitchell, D-Vassalboro, who was a member of the Legislature’s Education Committee at the time.
Yet Mitchell and others who worked on the plan at the local level — she was a Vassalboro selectwoman who served on a consolidation subcommittee — felt that incentives to change, rather than penalties for noncompliance, would have proved more effective.
“Many people still feel bruised about it,” said Mitchell, who finished third in the race to succeed Baldacci. “Rural Maine still feels disenfranchised.”
Former Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, who also served on the Education Committee, gives Baldacci political points for putting the plan in the budget.
However, he said it made assumptions that didn’t prove to be true.
“It was based on a tenuous premise that we would save money in the first year and that districts would vote to consolidate,” he said.
In the end, lawmakers passed a law that set 80 — not 26 — as the ultimate goal for the number of school districts.
Still, people in rural Maine were unhappy about the state’s interference in local schools, and a citizens group gathered the signatures necessary to ask voters to repeal the law.
That effort failed in November 2009, when 58 percent of voters upheld the measure.
Today, the state has 179 districts — down from 290 — with nearly a dozen in various phases of the process, according to the Department of Education.
For his part, Baldacci said he hopes the work continues.
“In a lot of cases, they don’t like those changes,” he said. “They took it to referendum, but the people supported maintaining school administrative consolidation and they realize now that there’s going to be even more consolidations.”