It’s school shopping season — and we’re not talking about new clothing, knapsacks or three-ring binders.

This year, like never before, Maine parents and their kids can go shopping for actual schools.

“Maybe we should change the name on the back of our kids’ (athletic) uniforms,” lamented Yarmouth Superintendent of Schools Judith Paolucci in an interview last week. “Instead of ‘Yarmouth,’ it should read ‘Yarmouth et al.’ “

She’s only half-joking. If you want to send your kid to another town to play on a better sports team, enroll in a music program your local district doesn’t offer or simply bask in a new facility that’s night-and-day better than the school down the street, there’s a better-than-decent chance Maine Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen will make it happen.

What’s more, you can make the switch at no extra cost to you or your hometown.

How so?

It’s simple: Parents unable to get permission from two school districts (the one in which they live and the one in which they don’t) for their kids to transfer are appealing to Bowen in unprecedented numbers to override the local superintendents.

And it’s working: In recent weeks, 68 such appeals have been filed with the commissioner. Of those, 50 have been granted, 15 are still pending and only three have been denied.

“It’s no secret that the commissioner and the governor are looking for more school choice,” explained David Connerty-Marin, communications director for the Maine Department of Education. “At a minimum, (that means) public-school choice where students aren’t hamstrung by arbitrary town lines — they get to go where they think it makes the most sense.” Did we hear that right? In a state where “local control” has for decades been a fiercely protected tradition (particularly among conservatives), Maine’s municipal boundaries are now viewed as “arbitrary?”

“You can go to any gym you like, regardless of where you live,” replied Connerty-Marin. “Why do you have to go to the school that happens to sit within a line that’s on the ground?”

More on that in a minute. First, a little history:

For years, the annual handful of parents wishing to transfer their children to a school outside their local districts have submitted their requests to the superintendents in each district.

Under state law, if both school superintendents agree that the move is “in the student’s best interest” — for example, the family just moved to another town but Junior wants to spend his senior year with his lifelong buddies — the districts execute a “superintendents agreement” and it’s a done deal.

If one or both superintendents don’t sign off, however, the parents can appeal to the education commissioner, who has final say on whether the transfer occurs.

Enter “An Act to Expand Educational Opportunities for Maine Students,” a bill Commissioner Bowen and Gov. Paul LePage tried to push through the Legislature in March.

Among other things, the measure tweaked the “superintendents agreement” process to require that the commissioner grant the parents’ appeal if the school has space and the commissioner disagrees with the dissenting superintendent(s). The bill also would have automatically trumped any local districts that “deny all such requests.”

Anxious lawmakers balked at passing the bill, choosing instead to set up a study group that will hold its first meeting later this month.

But in the meantime, Bowen is using his discretion under existing law to steamroll over dissenting superintendents and give the parents — in all but a few unspecified cases — whatever they want.

“The commissioner has told the superintendents that he is going to be looking at this more broadly than his predecessors,” said Connerty-Marin. “His starting point, his baseline, is that if a student and the parents are looking for it, then they probably have the best idea of what’s in the best interest of the student.”

If only, from the superintendents’ standpoint, it were that simple.

“What I’m worried about is the commissioner hasn’t thought this through,” said Yarmouth Superintendent Paolucci, who’s been overruled by Bowen twice so far this summer. (She found out not by hearing directly from Bowen, but by being cc’d on letters to the respective parents in which Bowen wished their kids “a successful school year.”)

Paolucci’s concerns are many:

Parents of athletes might go shopping for a winning team in order to enhance their child’s exposure and, of course, shot at a college scholarship.

Parents of students with special needs, unhappy with what their local school offers, might gravitate toward a district where such one-on-one services are superior (and more costly).

Parents might even align the kiddo’s school with Mom’s or Dad’s work commute — in one case recently approved by Bowen, Yarmouth lies directly between the town in which the family lives and the town in which the mother works.

Then there are the financial implications.

The state’s school funding formula provides only a small fraction of Yarmouth’s total per-pupil operating costs ($13,434 for each high school student in 2010-11), leaving Yarmouth’s taxpayers to pick up the difference this year for two kids whose parents contribute nothing to local tax revenues.

(Paolucci still can’t figure out what this will mean for the dozen or so families who currently live outside Yarmouth but pay close to $9,000 annually in tuition so their children can go to school there. Bowen, with the stroke of his pen, can make that hefty bill simply disappear.)

“I personally want to make the decision based on what’s right,” Paolucci said. “If I think it’s truly in the best interest of the child, if I think that’s fair, then I’m going to approve it. But if I think it’s not, it’s my responsibility to the town not to — and if (Bowen) is going to override me, he’s going to override me.”

Paolucci and Yarmouth are far from alone.

Up in Augusta, Superintendent Connie Brown said in an email that Bowen’s liberal interpretation of “student’s best interest” means that “as a practical matter … whatever parents want, they get.”

Brown reported that since June, she’s been overturned by Bowen “no less than a dozen times.”

“I’ve denied requests for superintendents agreements that were based on day care, athletics, special education and convenience,” Brown wrote. “All were overturned by the commissioner.”

Meaning?

“Basically,” concluded Brown, “if you want school choice and use the superintendents agreement as a vehicle, you will be successful.”

Back at the Department of Education, statistics provided by Connerty-Marin show that the 68 (and counting) appeals submitted for the current school year represent a 251 percent increase over last year. (Of the 27 submitted in 2011-12, only 16 were approved.)

“(Bowen) hasn’t been shouting it from the rooftops, but he certainly has let the superintendents know,” Connerty-Marin said. “And I think the word has gotten out.”

Meaning this, in all likelihood, is only the beginning. Until the LePage administration gets a school-choice law that better defines the meaning of “student’s best interest,” Connerty-Marin said, the “initial presumption” will be with the parents.

So be advised (or forewarned), Maine parents. You no longer need the Legislature to decide whether “school shopping” is truly a good idea for your kid or, just as importantly, someone else’s community.

Just keep trying on classrooms until you find one that fits.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]