Last week the New England Patriots played the Philadelphia Eagles in a pre-season football game. Fans on both sides of that game can’t wait for the start of the regular football season, after suffering through a spring and summer watching their baseball teams under perform. Both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Red Sox are in fourth place out of five teams in their divisions (Aug. 23). The Phillies are 20 games behind the Washington team and the Red Sox were 10 games behind Tampa Bay. The magnitude of their under performance is truly amazing, when you add in the fact that the Philadelphia and Boston 2012 team payrolls were the second and third highest out of the thirty baseball teams at $174 million and $173 million, respectively. This compares to Washington’s and Tampa Bay’s payrolls of $81 million and $64 million, respectively.

Based on the Aug. 23 standings, eight of the top 12 teams averaged about $76 million each in player payroll, which was significantly below the average of $98 million. Clearly, spending the most on players does not guarantee that you will have a successful team and teams spending significantly less than average can have successful teams.

I have written many times about irresponsible school spending in South Portland, not because I am against properly funding public schools. I am for good strong public schools and against charter schools, school vouchers or using taxpayer money to fund private schools because they will weaken our public schools. However, South Portland’s goal should never be to be in the top 10 percent in spending on education in the state or to provide the best education at any cost. The goal should be to provide a good education at the most efficient cost possible. Just like in baseball, spending more than average on education does not mean better performance.

Recently, the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI) at the University of Southern Maine published a report on “More Efficient Public Schools In Maine.” The report was the result of thousands of hours of research and analysis of 524 public schools. Based on standardized test scores and graduation rates for the years 2007-2009, the report identified 119 schools out of the 524 schools that outperformed state averages and schools with similar demographics. Of the 119 high performing schools, 90, or about 75 percent, were identified as “more efficient” because they spent less on instructional expenses per student than schools in similar demographic communities. Spending on transportation, central office administration, facilities and debt service was not included.

Similar to baseball teams, spending the most on education does not guarantee better performance and most high performing schools spend less than average on education.

In addition to the MEPRI report for the years 2007-2009 noted above, the MEPRI prepared updated school efficiency profiles for the three years 2008-2010 (See http://www.usm.maine.edu/cepare/maine-public-school-efficiency-profiles). A review of the profiles on the five South Portland elementary schools, the two middle schools and the high school, showed that only Small Elementary School met both the performance standard and the cost standard. Based on the 2010 enrollment, less than 10 percent of South Portland students attended efficient schools. However, because the study excluded administration, facilities and debt service costs, and because South Portland has very high administrative costs, a proper inclusion of these costs would probably show that even Small school was not efficient due to higher-than-expected total costs. Overall, the South Portland schools are significantly under performing based on their lower-than-expected test scores and their higher than expected costs.

The 2008-2010 school efficiency profiles showed that Kaler and Skillin elementary schools and the two middle schools (Mahoney and Memorial) had average test scores both less than the state average and below the “expected” test scores based on other schools with similar demographics ( percent of students in special education, low income and limited English proficiency). So the “expected” test scores for South Portland were lower than Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough based on South Portland’s higher percentages of students with special needs, lower income and English proficiency. Accordingly, the comparison was an apples-to-apples comparison. All of the Scarborough schools tests scores were better than “expected” and were provided at lower than “expected” costs.

The 2008-2010 school efficiency profiles for Brown and Dyer elementary schools showed that their average test scores were slightly higher than the state average, but less than their “expected” test scores based on their demographics.

Rather than dealing with poor test scores and excessive costs over the past few years, the school board and the school superintendent spend significant time misleading the public about its budgets, increasing its already excessive administrative costs and pushing through the most irresponsible high school expansion in the state of Maine. The South Portland high school facility will be the largest high school in the state and will be more than 55,000 square feet larger than Noble High School built in 2001, which was designed for 1,500 students. South Portland High School had only about 865 students in 2012 and likely will never have more than 1,000 students in the future. In addition to spending at least $25 million too much for a school that will be at least 60,000 square feet too large, South Portland taxpayers will spend millions too much on heat, utilities and maintenance over 50 years once the school is completed.

The South Portland school board and the superintendent should be held accountable for the schools’ poor performance over the past several years and major changes should be made to reduce administrative costs and eliminate ineffective and inefficient programs. The chances of any significant changes are very small however, due to the lack of transparency in the schools and the superintendent’s ability to hide the truth and to manipulate an uninformed school board.

Al DiMillo is a retired CPA who lives in South Portland.


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