New Era for School Consolidation

(from Maine Townsman, June 2007)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

In 1957, the Legislature passed the Sinclair Act, Maine’s first major effort to create regional school districts. The new law responded to an urgent problem: how to handle the influx of Baby Boom children who swelled school enrollments to record highs. The act created a special school district commission whose sole job was to assist towns and cities in creating what came to be known as school administrative districts – SADs.

More than two hundred municipalities accepted the new concept for schools, and 62 durable, multi-town SADs were formed. The school district commission was given five years to accomplish its work, and nearly all of the present-day SADs were created during that span. A few SADs did not last, and some have seen towns withdraw during the past two decades, but the current regional landscape is largely the same one the Sinclair Act created. In addition to regionalization, the law established the first standards for school size, state funding and teacher pay. It remains one of the few laws passed by the Legislature whose name is still familiar, even if the details have largely been lost to memory.

Fifty years later, the state has embarked on a second major effort to regionalize school districts, but under greatly different circumstances. Instead of a boom in enrollment, Maine public schools are experiencing a sharp decline. The seemingly inexorable “graying” of the population has produced the smallest cohort of school-aged children since the Great Depression. From its peak in 1970 of 250,000 students, K-12 schools have dropped to 200,000 and enrollment will go lower, since elementary classes are smaller than high school grades throughout Maine. Some easing of the child shortage may be occurring through in-migration, but the declining enrollment numbers are unlikely to turn around anytime soon, according to Department of Education data.

At the same time, costs per student have been rising rapidly as schools respond to demands for a better-educated workforce, adding teachers, specialists and – according to the Baldacci administration – school administrators by the score. With rising resistance to property taxes that go primarily to fund schools, something like the current reorganization plan, enacted by the Legislature on June 6 as part of the biennial budget, LD 499, was probably inevitable, say most political observers. Add in the requirement from the 2004 referendum vote that the state increase its share of General Purpose Aid to Education to 55 percent, and most agree lawmakers had no choice but to act.

Rep. Emily Cain (D-Orono), who chaired the Appropriations subcommittee that came up with the plan, said after a 112-29 House vote in favor of the budget that, “Maine people want[ed] to see the Legislature take action to create a system for sustainable education funding.”

Contrasts and similarities

The differences between the 1957 Sinclair Act and the 2007 state budget plan for School Administrative Reorganization (LD 499) are striking. The first was a comprehensive educational policy law that did everything from establishing minimum teacher salaries and high school sizes to asking a new, independent commission to oversee the regionalization process. The second law, at least so far, focuses narrowly on administrative costs, with budget concerns taking priority. Schools have been told explicitly by the administration that “no schools will be closed,” and that no teachers will lose their jobs – even though school consolidation has been proceeding at a slow but steady pace over the past two decades, and many districts have eliminated teaching positions. The regional school units (RSUs) that the budget bill envisions emerging over the next two years will need two-thirds school board majorities and municipal votes to close schools.

While the differences between the two laws are striking, there are similarities in how they came to be. Enactment in the Legislature followed single-minded campaigns on behalf of the reforms by two Democratic governors, Ed Muskie in 1957, during the last of his two two-year terms, and John Baldacci in 2007. While the earlier law bears the name of Sen. Roy Sinclair of rural Somerset County, none doubted that Muskie’s resolve was a key element.

Both reform bills were also preceded by highly visible reports calling for change. The Jacobs Report of 1956, commissioned by the previous legislature, set the stage with its sweeping conclusion: “The existence of so many small town school administrative units, designated as the responsibility of individual town governments, places major handicaps on the establishment of a most effective school finance system, and on the attainment of adequate educational opportunity for all children through the state.”

The Baldacci proposal for 26 consolidated districts in January 2007, modified to a target of 80 by the Appropriations Committee, succeeded several reports on education from the State Board of Education, the Brookings Institution and the Maine Children’s Alliance. The three reports were less united in their prescriptions, though all called for some degree of district consolidation or collaboration.

What Happens Next?

With the ink hardly dry on the budget bill, it is far too soon to predict the outcome of this year’s educational initiative, and how it will stack up against the Sinclair Act in prompting change. The Townsman surveyed local municipal and school officials who are planning to regionalize, and in one case moving forward to completion of a plan.

These local efforts are occurring in tandem with a process that centralizes direction in the Department of Education. Under the terms of the budget, department officials have convened a series of meetings in the 26 vocational regions from June 18 to July 12 designed to secure local agreements by August on which municipal partners to form new RSUs. Municipalities ready to vote to regionalize can do so on January 15, 2008, with another opportunity to vote by June 2008. All proposed consolidation plans must face a local vote by November 2009, with the resulting consolidations accomplished by July 1, 2009, the beginning of the school fiscal year statewide.

Department officials have offered a list of professional facilitators to work with local officials, and have drawn maps of 62 possible district configurations, even though Commissioner Susan Gendron, when the maps were unveiled in May, said they were “for discussion purposes only.” The state will fund facilitators, transition assistance, and at least one municipal election on consolidation plans.

Several alternatives were studied and discussed by the Education Committee in the early days of the current session before jurisdiction over the school plan was transferred to the Appropriations Committee in mid-March. Various bills, including one backed by MMA, would have set up planning alliances in the 26 vocational regions that would have coordinated discussions to offer cooperative services, as well as district consolidation. The concept was not included in the final plan, Commissioner Gendron said, because local school officials “preferred to have maximum flexibility,” rather than have the process written into statute.

The state-centered process has presented some difficulties for those who had already been working on regional consolidation efforts.

“The state kept changing the parameters. The district sizes and the procedures for forming one were a moving target throughout the session,” observed Mark Eastman, superintendent of SAD 17, the Oxford Hills Regional District.

Judy Harvey, superintendent of SAD 50 in the Thomaston area, regrets the single-minded emphasis on the budget. “In our area, people are interested when you talk about improving educational quality, and how to prepare kids for the 21 st century workforce. When you talk only about the budget, they tune out.”

And in the Bath area, a fledging regionalization campaign that is pushing toward a vote this November found itself competing with the state plan as it worked on a separate bill, LD 910, that would enabling creation of the district in July 2008.

Nonetheless, the experiences in these regions should prove instructive to school and municipal officials grappling with consolidation throughout Maine – particularly as to what brings schools together, and what tends to drive them apart.

Bath-Union 47

Until 1991, Bath and the five Union 47 towns (Arrowsic, Georgetown, Phippsburg, West Bath and Woolwich) were part of a single union with one superintendent. A dispute primarily about the superintendent’s management ability led Bath to leave the union and hire its own superintendent.

Ten years later, people in Union 47 began talking about issues of governance, particularly since they collectively sent nearly half the students attending Morse High School and the Bath Middle School, paying more than $3 million in tuition, but had not voted concerning secondary school policies. While this was true even when Bath belonged to Union 47 — every town retained its own school board – the issue intensified as Morse’s physical condition deteriorated and the dropout rate increased.

At first, Bath school board members turned a deaf ear to these entreaties, but three years ago they started listening. A task force to study regionalization began meeting, and last summer recommended that the six communities pursue a consolidated district. The task force in turn appointed a transition team to guide the effort, and the group is now pursuing legislation that would permit ratification by November and an operating district on July 1, 2008. If formed as envisioned by the transition team, it would be the first completely new regional district in Maine in 40 years.

The transition team has had varied reactions to the state legislation that gradually assumed priority during the session. There was a realization than any separate legislation would have to be submitted quickly, then a wave of dissent emerged among school board members not part of the transition team at the speed with which the legislation was moving. Finally, after a series of joint meetings involving nearly 30 school board members from the six municipalities, the boards agreed to move forward.

LD 910, their chosen vehicle, has several provisions of local concern that are different from the procedures outlined in LD 499. The rural towns would benefit from a cost sharing formula different from the state’s, while Bath would have debt incurred in its school renovations assumed by the new district, and receive an exemption from the city’s spending cap. The legislation also contains provisions continuing but limiting school choice outside the district, terminating and renegotiating union contracts, and creating cross-town electoral districts to choose a nine-member school board that would not have to make weighted budget votes.

The transition team members are united in their belief that the state should recognize the local process as a unique regionalization plan, reflecting work undertaken long before state legislation was even being discussed.

Jamie Omo, who has a unique role under the Bath charter as an elected city councilor and is also a voting school board member, was not part of the transition team but supports its work.

“The transition team really put us ahead of the process. It allowed us to consider a lot of issues that the state has yet to take on,” he said, including how to adequately represent voters and school children rather than the municipalities per se.

Omo doesn’t believe Bath, or school boards anywhere else in the state, can shy away from tough issues about jobs and programs. “We’ve laid off people in the school department,” he said. “We’re putting janitorial services out to bid to private companies, and there will be jobs lost there.” What a regional district could do, he said, “is allow us to save a couple of million bucks right off” and reinvest the savings in keeping up program standards.

One of the most popular documents in the transition team’s folder is an Educational Benchmarks plan from Superintendent William Shuttleworth, who now holds that position in both Bath and Union 47. It includes decreasing the dropout rate, increasing test scores, and teaching French and Spanish at each of the proposed district’s five elementary schools, something now offered only in Bath.

“Even though the Governor wants to save money, education should come first,” Omo said. And he also believes that each regional effort will have distinct elements, just as the Bath-Union 47 discussions have. “They’re not going to work out the same everywhere. We should expect that, and accept that.”

SAD 17 and 39

The Oxford Hills Regional School District (SAD 17) is one of the largest regional districts in the state, both in terms of enrollment and in the number of member municipalities. Eight towns in the Paris-Norway area are members, and the district has more than 3,600 students and operates the fourth largest high school in the state, with more than 1,200 students. The other member towns are Harrison, Hebron, Otisfield, Oxford, Waterford and West Paris.

Nevertheless, the district is prepared to grow larger, under certain circumstances, according to Mark Eastman, the superintendent. The district has had informal talks with SAD 39, based in Buckfield, whose 7-12 grade school enrolls just over 200 high school students; the other member towns are Hartford and Sumner. All of SAD 39’s elementary students go to school at the Hartford-Sumner School. The Oxford Hills and Buckfield high schools are nine miles apart, separated by Streaked Mountain and connected by a rebuilt Route 117.

Under the Governor’s original 26-district plan, the two SADs would have been required to merge. They would have constituted an entire vocational (or CTE) region by themselves, enrolling more than 4,200 students.

Oxford Hills and SAD 39 have already launched several cooperative ventures. The expansion of Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in 1998 involved a major classroom reconfiguration that literally merged academic and vocational offerings; classrooms for math and computer-assisted design are next to each other, and top students regularly enroll in vocational classes. Buckfield-area students also benefit from the programs. More recently the two districts decided to offer joint adult education classes, and the SAD 39 superintendent has been hired as a half-time assistant superintendent for SAD 17, collectively saving the two districts a superintendent’s salary.

All this cooperation might indicate two districts that are ready to join together, but Eastman says that’s not necessarily so.

“The state has given mixed signals. We’re not sure now what the best course is to take,” he said. While under the Governor’s 26 district plan, Oxford Hills would be required to merge, under the 80-district plan finally enacted by the Legislature, it would not be –- though SAD 39 would still be required to partner-up or face financial sanctions.

Setting the bar at 2,500 students per district has also had some possibly unintentional effects. Shortly after the new plan was announced, Eastman fielded a request from nearby SAD 61, which was trying to add to its current four towns (Bridgton, Casco, Naples and Sebago) by taking Harrison away from SAD 17, which would still have 2,500 students without Harrison. (Like the SAD 61 towns, Harrison lies in Cumberland, rather than Oxford County.)

Eastman said the SAD 17 board was uncomfortable with the idea, and voted not to pursue it: “ Harrison has been a member town from the beginning. We don’t want this to be a numbers game. It’s supposed to be about kids and their education.”

Had SAD 17 and 39 continued talks along the original lines, they might now have been discussing how to best configure their secondary schools. Non-vocational students from Buckfield High School might have jointed their fellow students at Oxford Hills, and the current 7-12 school in Buckfield might have in turn received some seventh and eight grade students from Oxford Hills, whose middle schools are overcrowded.

But “the Governor has said that no school will be closed, and that it will take a super-majority to close one,” Eastman said. By focusing on just one aspect of regionalization, the administration may have lessened prospects for other forms of cooperation.

As it is, the two SADs will head into their state-sponsored regional meeting on June 26 without a clear course of action. “This is going to require a lot more discussion,” Eastman said. “Our school board is going to have to know a lot more about the state’s intentions before we set a direction.”

SAD 5 and 50

At SAD 50, which comprises Thomaston, Cushing and St. George, Superintendent Judy Harvey has been working for several years on a project that began with proposals for replacing George’s Valley High School. It was constructed in the 1960s as part of the state-funded building boom that succeeded passage of the Sinclair Act and the replacement of many single-town high schools.

The task force studying the question originally sought state aid for replacing the building, but found that with enrollment at less than 350, and declining, the state was unwilling to participate financially. Not long after, the independent “Many Flags” project began in Rockland as an offshoot of the Eastern Maine Economic Development Corp.’s effort to reorganize secondary and higher education on a single campus. Replacement of the regional vocational center that both SAD 50 and SAD 5 ( Rockland area) students attend would go forward along with a regional high school and, possibly, programs offered by the Community College and University of Maine systems.

Harvey says that the bold educational focus of the Many Flags plan has caught the attention of many, and has helped reorient community sentiment.

When discussions in SAD 50 began, “the assumption was that we were going to replace George’s Valley,” she said. A year after the task force began meeting, “People were wondering when we were going to join the regional school.”

The effect of the state’s LD 499 on the regional high school and Many Flags process is unclear, Harvey said. Her district has bent over backward to include community members, teachers, support staff, and students in discussing what a new school should look like. Funding through the Great Schools Project has led them to examine schools in half a dozen other states that show how programs can be constructed to maximize benefits in a regional school. The only school the task force visited in Maine was Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School.

Despite the attractions of the SAD 5 and 50 regional concept, which was ratified in the state maps, Harvey thinks there may be resistance when it comes time to vote. The reduction of penalties in “minimum receiver” towns in the state legislation, from 100 percent of state subsidy to 50 percent, might influence these towns – there are two in SAD 50. It might mean, she said, “they’re willing to pay the penalty. People like control of their local school. They may not be willing to give it up.”

Will it Work?

The process of implementing the School Administrative Reorganization plan in LD 499 is just beginning, and there are varied opinions about how successful it will be. Even within the Department of Education, there are those who estimate that several dozen new districts could form in the first year or two, and others who foresee only a handful.

The lack of positive incentives for consolidation is often mentioned, as is the relatively undefined local process by which municipalities are supposed to sort themselves out. The significant exemptions to consolidation are another issue. Waivers have been offered to all districts currently 2,500 pupils and larger, as well as “doughnut hole” towns that try to consolidate but can’t find partners. Certain “high performing” school districts are also given a bye, as are geographically isolated towns and islands. Finally, there’s a historical concern going back to the original Sinclair Act: The smaller communities that declined to regionalize 50 years ago are the same ones that are expected to band together now.

Sen. Peter Mills ( R-Somerset County) comes from the same place Roy Sinclair did, and is the veteran of six legislative terms, following both his father and his grandfather in being elected to the Senate. He’s served on the Appropriations Committee and is currently a member of the Education Committee, where he complained about the slow pace of deliberations before the bill was forwarded to Appropriations.

He’s relatively optimistic about the prospect of numerous new districts forming, as long as the Department of Education manages the process well. “A lot depends on the quality of the people who are helping the locals,” he said. “Get a few former superintendents who are widely respected and familiar with the rural areas, and people will see the advantages,” he said.

Others are more reserved. Eastman said that some of the natural allies of regionalization, such as Oxford Hills board members, may not be happy with the emphasis the state places on the budget as the driving force.

Harvey agrees. “We were preaching education, education, education at every meeting. That was the only way we could get people’s attention. Saving money isn’t enough.”

In Bath, councilor and school board member Jamie Omo sees resistance to concepts like regional schools as stemming from Maine and New England traditions. “The reason New England is here is because we didn’t like Old England,” he said. “We’re all Yankees, and we like to do it our way.”

The idea of local schools is very seductive, he said. “If our kid has a problem on the bus, we like to think we can talk to the bus driver and solve it. Or there’s an issue with a teacher we can deal with that ourselves.” The reality, he said, is that the structures of school districts can be changed and unified without loss of local control. He takes seriously the much-maligned school advisory groups proposed both in the state legislation and the Bath area’s LD 910, and says they can preserve a sense of local control. “It concerns the same issues small school boards are dealing with now,” he said.

Omo said the Bath School Board faced divisions whenever regional discussions concentrated solely on financial concerns. “Every time we got away from education, there was trouble. Whenever we got back to educational excellence, we could agree.”

Judy Harvey counsels patience well beyond the state’s current timeframe. “We’ve found that this take time. Lots of time. It’s not just about teachers and administrators, but about citizens. People aren’t ready to agree on the spot, and if we expect them to do that, we’ll be disappointed.”