The Legislature’s Education Committee is considering a plan that would require the state’s 290 school districts to form cooperatives in the near term to save money on behind-the-scenes administrative functions and special education, and lay the groundwork for consolidating the state into less than 100 districts by July of 2009.

Working through the weekend and all day on Monday, members of the committee took straw votes supporting a gradual approach to consolidation, with the ultimate goal of having districts no larger, on average, than 2,500 students.

While the committee was reluctant to put an actual goal on the number of districts that would be created, there currently are around 200,000 students in the system statewide and simply dividing that number by 2,500 would create 80 districts. A few districts already are larger than 2,500, and exceptions are expected to be made for • small districts where geography makes full consolidation impractical.

The committee’s draft plan would first require the state’s existing school districts to form educational service cooperatives or service districts no later than July of 2008. They would be charged with saving money by collaborating on central office functions like purchasing, bookkeeping and staff training; building maintenance; transportation; and special education.

The goal is for them to cut non-instructional costs by 10 percent and special education costs by 5 percent to fill a $36 million hole in the state budget. The hope is they would save a similar amount on the local level for that part of the school budget supported by property taxes.

“At some point the rubber has to meet the road,” said Rep. Meredith Strang Burgess, R-Cumberland, who had wanted a faster timetable on consolidation. “You’ve got to demand that they can deliver the savings.”

Those same cooperatives also would come up with school consolidation plans that would be voted on by member communities and go into effect by July of 2009.

The Education Committee is working to replace Gov. John Baldacci’s plan to cut the number of school districts in the state from 290 to 26 by July of 2008 – a plan that is opposed both in and outside the Statehouse.

The governor’s plan booked $36 million in savings in the second year of the two-year state budget and now the Education Committee is trying to come up with the money in another way. A proposal is due Thursday to the Appropriations Committee, which will make a recommendation to the full Legislature.

“Show me the money,” Chairman Sen. Peter Bowman, D-York County, said to lobbyists presenting alternatives to the governor’s proposal over the weekend.

Attorney Dick Spencer, a consultant hired by the Maine School Management Association, representing school boards and superintendents, said his group supported school districts no larger than 1,000 students. But in a 9-2 straw vote Monday, the Education Committee called for 2,500, where geographically possible.

The committee unanimously voted to allow some districts to apply for waivers on that size including island districts, Indian schools, geographically isolated districts and those in the unorganized territories. Those waivers would not be automatic.

The committee is also looking at financial incentives to encourage consolidation and discussed:

• Increasing state aid to existing districts that consolidate and lowering the amount they must contribute to schools through the local tax rate

• Putting consolidated districts higher on the list when it comes to state reimbursement for school construction or renovation projects.

The flip side to those carrots are the sticks. Those that don’t consolidate would get less state aid. Not only would more of the state pot be diverted through the mil rate requirement, but more substantively the state would change its school aid formula to reflect what the Department of Education believes are the lower costs of larger districts.

In short, state aid for certain school district functions would be based on the cost savings the department believes could be achieved if school districts consolidated.

Whether a reduction in state aid will entice property-rich towns along the coast to consolidate remains to be seen. They now pay most of the expense of their local school systems and get minimal state aid, even though on a statewide basis the state is picking up more than 50 percent of the costs. That aid, which is supposed to hit 55 percent of costs statewide by 2009, is going to systems with growing enrollments and less robust tax bases.

Sen. Peter Mills, R-Somerset County, believes some of those smaller, more affluent districts may never come along unless ordered to do so by the state.

“There are stray cats who will not join up no matter what you do,” Mills said. “Some of them have enormous wealth and they have so few students, they’re immune to economic incentives.”

Mills is pushing a plan to cap what little state aid those high-value towns get by capping their special education money at the current rate of 84 percent of costs, instead of moving it up to the promised 95 percent in the next fiscal year. Mills would like to use the estimated $3 million saved as a cash incentive for districts that consolidate.

The more immediate need is finding way to promote savings through cooperation.

Under the Education Committee’s proposal, which has borrowed from plans offered by the state teachers union, the Maine Municipal Association and the Maine Children’s Alliance, there would be 26 planning alliances created, encompassing the same regions now served by the state’s 26 regional vocational/technical school districts. Existing alliances and those that want to form along different geographical lines could also be part of the mix.

They would then create service districts or cooperatives to jointly bid on supplies, handle building maintenance, do the bookkeeping, train staff and handle myriad central-office functions. They also would form special education collaboratives to save money on educating students with special needs.

Education Commissioner Susan Gendron, a former school superintendent in Windham, was asked if she thought the goals of cutting 10 percent in non-instructional areas and 5 percent in special education was doable.

“In your professional opinion could you have done this if you’d been asked?” asked Rep. Patricia Sutherland, D-Chapman.

“Absolutely,” Gendron said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: