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As Education Budget Difficulties Loom, 'Regionalization' Seen a Possible Solution

Lead Teacher Beverly Foss teachers her first-grade class at Athens Elementary School.
File photo: Robbie Feinberg/Maine Public
Lead Teacher Beverly Foss teachers her first-grade class at Athens Elementary School.

Once again, school funding is under heavy scrutiny in the state Legislature. Voters passed a surtax in November to increase state education funding.

But Governor LePage has other ideas. In his recent budget proposal, the governor actually calls for a $10 million reduction in that funding.

However, LePage and the Department of Education are putting more money into “school regionalization” — getting districts to share services and save money - an idea that has been tried in the past, with mixed results.

Inside a small classroom in Bangor, roughly a half-dozen middle schoolers gather around teacher Benjamin Emmott as he reads to them a story about the Holocaust. Emmott turns the page, pauses, and asks the students to reflect.

“Well, how did he treat that guy?” Emmott asks the students, referring to a Nazi officer.”
“Very badly,” one student says, glancing up from his book.
“Very sternly, right?” Emmott says. “He didn’t like it.”

This classroom is different for a few reasons. First, the students here have significant emotional needs. It’s not uncommon to see tantrums or students gathering their thoughts in the hallways. But what’s also uncommon is that many of these students aren’t from Bangor. They come here as part of a regionalized partnership of more than a dozen schools, both small and large.

“And it really has worked to our benefit,” says Bangor School Department Superintendent Betsy Webb.

Bangor School Department Superintendent Betsy Webb says the program — called the Southern Penobscot Regional Program for Children with Exceptionalities — was formed back in 1979. That’s when local districts began to see the rising costs of special education services. Each district had to pay for expensive equipment and specialized teachers.

It’s a lot of money for one school. But these districts figured out that by pooling their resources together, they could save money and make education easier for their students.

“And maybe the local unit doesn’t have the resources to provide that specialized instruction,” Webb says. “So that’s really what we’re after.”

Today, state officials — including the governor — still point to the Bangor program as a success story of consolidating educational services. But statewide, consolidation hasn’t been nearly so successful recently.

“I think people, frankly, didn’t see the benefits,” says University of Maine Professor Emeritus Gordon Donaldson.

UMaine Professor Emeritus Gordon Donaldson looked at the last round of school consolidation in the state, in 2007. Donaldson says the idea from Gov. John Baldacci was to force school districts to share administration and save money. But he says those savings never really came together. As districts merged, they ended up needing more staff to handle new federal and state mandates.

“That ultimately drives up the cost of running a larger, consolidated school district,” Donaldson says. “Then once those costs go up, they don’t go down very easily.”

Janet Fairman of the University of Maine says the state did reduce its number of school districts from 290 down to about 160 in 2011. But more districts keep coming apart, and now, the number is up to more than 240. The verdict is mostly clear, she says, communities want to maintain local control of schools. They don’t want to be forced to share administration and costs with other communities.

“The push for local control is still very strong in Maine,” Fairman says. “And I think that’s part of the reason that many of these school districts have pulled from their regional units.”

With that forced consolidation in the rear-view mirror, Governor LePage has introduced a new push, for what the Department of Education calls “regionalization.” To do it, the Governor’s new budget proposal gets rid of all state funding for superintendents and passes them on locally. That’s something many educators disagree with. But where those educators do see some promise is in a new program to award $3 million in grants to districts that work together to find savings.

“Are there other ways we can collaborate? Are there different things we can be doing?”

Steve Bailey is the president of the Maine School Superintendents Association. He’s cautiously optimistic about the new incentives. Particularly that they’re voluntary, not forced on districts by the state.

At the same time, Bailey says schools have long pursued these partnerships without any financial help. That’s how the regional special education program in Bangor formed. Bailey’s organization recently surveyed the state and found more than a hundred examples of districts sharing teachers, administrators and transportation services.

In Bangor, Superintendent Betsy Webb says she’s hopeful new partnerships can form, as she’s seen how regionalization has changed learning in her district. But at the same time, Webb wants to make sure these new grants come on top of adequate funding for state education.

“And again, superintendents’ questions are, but where are those funds coming from?” Webb says.

That won’t be clear until the legislature debates school funding over the next few months. Already, though, the incentives are leading to new conversations. Steve Bailey says his district — AOS 93 in Boothbay — is already discussing a regional special education partnership. And schools in Aroostook County are looking to the grants as a way to fund new technology integrators.

The Maine Department of Education didn’t respond to a request for comment. But the department said in a release that it hopes the push leads to “new or collaborative” educational services.