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School Administrators Doubt New Push For Sharing Services Will Save Them Money

Remember the school consolidation effort that was launched 10 years ago in Maine? Some districts would rather forget it, but the state is about to ask them to try a new initiative.

The state budget bill passed in July bolstered education funding by more than $160 million, but also established rules around the creation of a new system for sharing educational services across districts. Supporters say it will give kids more opportunities, but some school officials are having doubts.

Some Mainers still talk disparagingly about the 2007 school consolidation law, under then-Gov. John Baldacci. The policy forced school districts across the state to merge with each other in an effort to save on administrative costs.

But in many districts, the law ultimately led to conflicts between towns and offered little in the way of any savings. Now, a decade later, the state is pushing a new reorganization effort.

“Everything about the Department’s initiative, everything that we’re doing speaks to the idea of giving students better opportunities,” says Mary Paine, the Maine Department of Education’s Director of Strategic Initiatives.

Paine says the state will establish up to a dozen School Management and Leadership Centers, and is asking districts to work together over the next nine months to reach agreements for sharing services across an entire region.

Many districts already do share services such as special education and professional development. Earlier this year, about 60 districts received grants from the state to voluntarily regionalize their services.

But Paine says with this latest effort, she wants districts to go even further, and to think about how to enhance classroom opportunities through, for example, experiential learning or career and technical education.

“Magnet schools for students in one region that students could choose from,” Paine says. “Just all kinds of amazing ideas that people are thinking about.”

“I don’t see how we’re going to save any money,” says Lewiston School Department Superintendent Bill Webster.

Webster says administrative costs in his school district are already among the lowest in the state, so he’s unsure whether forming a center will add to any savings.

“And in the meantime, we have the challenges of hiring a director to head up these centers. All the costs associated with it. I think it might even become more expensive, by adding another layer of management, which would make it more complicated to move forward,” he says.

But if a school decides not to form a center, it will come at a cost. For this school year, Webster says the state pays districts $135 per student to cover system administration costs. If a school creates a new management center, it’ll largely maintain that funding through at least 2020. But if a school doesn’t form a center, the state will reduce that money by nearly 70 percent.

Webster says for Lewiston, that could potentially mean losing as much as $700,000 in the 2019-2020 school year.

“Of course, there’s a finite number of dollars out there,” he says. “So school districts will invariably look at it as a penalty if they suffer under this.”

And some local officials say they’re still cold on the new policy, given what happened 10 years ago.

“I think people went through the Baldacci consolidation era,” says Scott Porter, the superintendent of AOS 96 in Washington County. “And I think there are still a lot of memories — bad memories — about that process.”

Porter says during the last consolidation effort, it took a lot of work to make residents of his district feel comfortable giving up any control over the operations and costs of their schools. He says it would be hard to do that again.

“People treasure and value local control in the state,” he says. “I don’t think they’re about to give it up.”

But Paine says districts should view the policy as an opportunity to give students services they may not have otherwise. And she says through these new centers, the state will now be paying for more direct instruction in the classroom, so local districts will have more money to fund local administration.

“It’s not about getting rid of anybody,” she says. “It’s all about driving money to the students. To the classroom. To instructional services.”

And some school officials are cautiously optimistic. Bangor Superintendent Betsy Webb says it’s still too early to say anything definitive, but she’s exploring opportunities in her own region.

However, if schools want to make this work, they’ll be under a tight timeline. To receive funding by next year, the centers will need to be up and running by next July. Schools say that doesn’t leave them with much time, but the DOE says it wants to work with schools and help them through the process.