The LePage administration has launched a multi-pronged effort to encourage schools and districts to share programs and services – and is offering $3 million in financial incentives for schools that launch efficiency efforts.

Gov. Paul LePage issued an executive order Monday directing that any leftover funds in the current fiscal year from the $1 billion in general purpose aid earmarked for schools be redirected to an account set up in 2007 that provides funding for “regionalization, consolidation and efficiency.”

Every year, the department leaves some funds available to make last-minute reallocations to respond to changing situations at a school district. For example, when a mill closes, a school district can get more state aid under the “sudden and severe adjustments” provision.

Acting Education Commissioner Bob Hasson said Tuesday that there are about $3 million in leftover funds that will be moved to the account and distributed via grants.

“There is a clear appetite across Maine to discover new, efficient ways to increase educational opportunities for students in Maine,” Hasson said in a statement. “The Department encourages every district considering innovative approaches to achieve efficiencies and deliver educational services in new or collaborative ways to apply for these funds. We hope to see ambitious proposals that serve Maine students and free up resources that can enhance educational opportunities.”

The proposals are specifically not a move toward more school district consolidation, according to Hasson.

“This is regionalization. Voluntary, incentivized regionalization,” he said. “It’s not the ‘c’ word.”

In 2007, former Gov. John Baldacci’s watershed school consolidation law was passed, designed to reduce administrative costs by creating larger, more efficient school districts and to equalize and improve educational opportunities for students across the state. In the wake of the controversial law, 127 communities merged to create 24 new multi-town school districts in 2009, but some towns have since dissolved their partnership.

The department said it would give priority to projects that involve two or more districts, are tied to a career and technical education (CTE) center or region, include a “smaller” district with fewer than 1,200 students and have “significant and sustainable savings” that can be replicated by other districts. The grant application also notes that districts can partner with municipalities, businesses, nonprofits or higher education institutions.

Examples of projects would be a proposal to provide tutoring after school or through an extended-year program, or jointly hiring a physics teacher to provide the program online to member districts.

Neighboring school districts, for example, could team up to offer certain services to special education students instead of each trying to separately provide the service themselves. Or districts could consolidate transportation, maintenance or human resources services.

These are some of the ideas being discussed by the Blue Ribbon Commission created by the Legislature that is charged with evaluating the state’s current education funding model and reporting back with recommendations for finance reform and improving student performance.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the Senate chairman of the Education Committee, said directing the excess funds to the regionalization account made sense.

“In the past, money has been allocated for that (account) and then during the budget process it is either vastly reduced or swept completely out,” said Langley. “This is the governor’s attempt to put money in there.”

Acting Deputy Education Commissioner Suzan Beaudoin said the law allows for the transfer of excess funds into the account.

“This grant will allow us to distribute those funds to school districts as adjustments to promote regionalization and efficiency, as allowed under (the law,)” she said.

In the executive order signed, LePage also directed the Department of Education to submit legislation to establish “regional education service agencies” to increase the sharing of education programs and services and to develop an application for integrated regional school models.

Hasson said the department was developing the application and the funds would “support multiple districts working together to program and provide space for students.” More details will be available when the application is finalized and released, he said.

LePage also asked the department to put forward legislation authorizing a bond to cover debt service for innovative construction of integrated regional school models. Hasson said the bond amount has not been determined yet.

The Maine School Boards Association and Maine School Superintendents Association said they were “very interested to see the details of the governor’s proposal.”

“Forced school consolidation isn’t the answer, but incentives to share regionally have great promise,” said Steve Bailey, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association. “There already are regional efforts underway, and we will work with the governor to come up with proposals that make sense.”

“We all have the same goal in mind, which is to use our limited resources in the best interest of all our students,” said Becky Fles, president of the Maine School Boards Association.

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