(from Maine Townsman, March 2004)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer
The emergency closure of Gouldsboro Grammar School due to mold last December forced citizens in two communities to quickly confront a problem that the rest of the state is only slowly grasping — dwindling enrollments.
Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor — neighboring coastal towns on the far side of Mount Desert Island — have been losing students for years. Though the situation was bemoaned, nothing much was done about it — even as the schools grew ever more expensive to operate — because the schools were so integral to community identity. Talk of consolidating schools had gone nowhere in two and a half years.
In Gouldsboro, the head count dropped from 180 to 157. In Winter Harbor, it plunged from 135 to 26 due largely to the withdrawal of the US Navy presence in town. At $9,743 per student, Winter Harbor Grammar School became one of the most expensive schools in the state.
Most people assumed that sending Gouldsboro students to Winter Harbor was a temporary arrangement that would last only until the mold problem was fixed. Formal plans for consolidation were presented to voters in both towns in late January. Expectations of passage were low, according to Union 96 Superintendent Donald LaPlante.
“The betting here was a vote to consolidate would never happen, no one saw
the benefits,” LaPlante explained. It was assumed that rivalry between the towns
would stymie cooperation. “I think the towns have a lot more in common than they
have differences, but there has been some animosity. I’m told it goes back
decades and people can’t tell you what it’s about.”
LaPlante paused for effect.
“Well, they voted to support consolidation.”
The margin in Gouldsboro was 3-2, in Winter Harbor it was 4-1.
Closing an elementary school is probably the most painful and difficult response to dwindling enrollments. But there are a spectrum of choices. Recently, the Maine Townsman surveyed some school districts on the forefront of the demographic change in search of creative responses and helpful lessons. In addition to Winter Harbor and Gouldsboro , the Townsman also looked at Waterville-Winslow and the neighboring district of SAD 47, Wells-Ogunquit Consolidated School District on the southern coast, and Union 93 on the Blue Hill peninsula.
Population down, spending up
The demographic storm bearing down on the state will empty classrooms like a permanent flu epidemic. Schools in Maine have already suffered a six percent drop in enrollment in the past decade. The drop is expected to accelerate to 12-13 percent by the year 2015, according to projections by the Maine State Planning Office. That translates into the disappearance of 20,000 to 25,000 students out of a total statewide enrollment of 206,000. It’s all due to the greying of the baby-boom generation, a declining birthrate, and an out-migration from rural areas.
The hardest hit will be Piscataquis and Washington counties; each is predicted to lose more than 25 percent of its students, according to a recent report to the State Board of Education. Franklin County is expected to lose nearly 25 percent and Aroostook County more than 20 percent.
The recent influx of out-of-staters that have swelled school enrollments in York and Cumberland counties won’t continue. Both are expected to lose more than five percent of their students by 2013. And Knox County, which has experienced nearly two percent growth in students during the last five years, is projected to lose 10 percent of its students during the next 10 years.
The average taxpayer might assume that dropping enrollments would at least lead to a lightening of the tax burden, but that has not been the case. “... in the last decade, real expenditures for education have increased 20 percent, while local communities increased their expenditures three times as much as the state,” according to the Gubernatorial Task Force on Increasing Efficiency and Equity in the Use of K-12 Education Resources. That it costs more to educate fewer students is partly due to inflation and mandates, partly due to the huge effort involved in reversing old habits, and partly due to a tired formula for funding education that has been tampered with so many times that it has lost its bearings.
The impetus to do something about this state of affairs is coming most strongly from the state, the source of $729 million of the $1.7 billion spent on K-12 education. The state is applying pressure with three levers of influence. Through its control of school construction money, the State Board of Education is making it easier to obtain funding to build a single consolidated school than it is to repair a couple of small older schools. The Baldacci administration is also proposing a package of incentives aimed at centralizing school administration into fewer districts and regionalizing services such as bus transportation and special education.
Perhaps the strongest pressure will come from the implementation of a new formula for funding public education called the Essential Programs and Services model, scheduled to be phased in beginning with the 2005-2006 school year. Among EPS’s many features will be its sensitivity to student head counts. In other words: those disappearing students will drain away state aid much quicker than is currently the case.
“There are going to be a lot of changes. We’re going to need to do things differently,” said James Rier, director of planning and management information systems for the Maine Department of Education. “We’re anticipating a decline in enrollment almost three times as much as we have seen before.”
But first, let’s have a look around.
How did Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor defy conventional wisdom and vote to consolidate?
Superintendent LaPlante said saving money was certainly the biggest factor. It would have cost $1.4 million to bring the closed Gouldsboro Grammar School up to code and the town would get no help from the state with renovation bills. But that wasn’t the only savings.
Winter Harbor certainly had a strong incentive to invite Gouldsboro students. Because of low enrollment, it was among the most expensive to operate schools in the state.
Combining two towns' students in one school and sharing the cost was another savings. That amounted to savings of $285,000. In the coming year, 3-4 teaching positions will be eliminated from a combined staff of 25.
“The first draft of our budget after considering contractual increases, supplies increases and utilities increases, we’ll still have a 14 percent cut in spending and that’s still subject to discussion.” Most of those savings went to Gouldsboro, the larger of the two communities. “Three quarters of those savings are going to Gouldsboro, one quarter to Winter Harbor.”
Wasn’t the low enrollment at least a good learning environment because of more personal attention from teachers?
“No it’s not. It’s very problematic,” said LaPlante. “In third grade, I’ve got one kid. In eighth two kids. Who are they going to talk to, have a conversation about the subject matter? We have three ranges of kids in one classroom. That’s multiple preps, multiple tests, multiple grades.”
And the rivalry between the two communities did not prevent them from joining together for the sake of the kids, said LaPlante.
“You feel allegiance and loyalty to the school where your kids are. People thought huge change would be fought and fought. But a week after the school (vote), the allegiance quickly shifted. My sense is it’s nice to have your kids go to school in town, but if it’s not (practical), people quickly move past it,” LaPlante said.
Count LaPlante among those glad to be proven wrong that school closure will be automatically opposed.
“The lesson I would draw is that it’s incredibly erroneous to jump to the conclusion that drastic changes won’t be supported,” LaPlante said.
The story is different in Wells-Ogunquit Consolidated School District, a wealthy region along the York County coast. When Ogunquit separated from Wells in 1980 and formed a new town, 150 students were enrolled in the K-8 Ogunquit Village School, a two-room schoolhouse built in 1906. Since then, enrollment has dropped to 60 students.
“Enrollment is continuing to dwindle. The cost per student is prohibitive,” said a former town selectman John Miller, chairman of a long-range planning committee.
The enrollment drop is due both to fewer incoming students, but also because the Wells-Ogunquit CSD school board shifted more grades to a brand new Wells Elementary School. The new school has many things the old school lacks — science labs, computer labs, and a gym. The school board voted in favor of closing the old school and saving both $400,000 in renovation costs and $217,000 in operating costs from eliminating a principal, part-time positions and maintenance funds.
Reversing the school board decision, Ogunquit voters overwhelmingly rejected closure. Even though it meant coming up with an additional $217,000 out of pocket. Miller said taxpayers in Ogunquit, unlike their counterparts elsewhere “are not squawking.” “They’re concerned about losing their school.”
Ogunquit Village School was not cited as needing improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act, however, both Wells Junior High School and Wells Elementary School were cited.
“I would hesitate to say that means we’re better,” said Miller. “ but it’s almost like family, classes are smaller. more individual attention. In the 60s and 70s bigger was better. Now look, was that the right thing? I saw a survey a short while ago, there’s very little difference in the quality of education. You often hear larger schools have extra things in the curriculum.”
“My sentiment is ‘let’s keep small schools if at all possible.”
With closing the school off the table, there are no cost saving plans on the horizon.
“We’re attempting to pursue all thoughts,” said Miller. Perhaps there is no urgency since Wells-Ogunquit receives so little aid from the state.
Bold plans are taking shape to merge selected operations at three school districts in central Maine. Enrollment in Waterville schools has dropped from 2,074 to 1,934 in just three years. In Winslow it’s dropped from 1,528 to 1,453. Enrollment is still stable in SAD 47 in the Oakland area, but it’s projected to begin dropping soon, according to SAD 47 Superintendent Robert Morse.
“Eventually, the logical outcome will be a merger, but we need to prove there really are savings,” said Morse. Those savings are still being documented, he said.
The three districts already jointly purchase paper, food supplies, copier services, and share special education staff. Beginning next year, the districts will mesh school calendars, and share a transportation director, an adult education director and a technology director. The search for new efficiencies is driven by the same financial pressures that have also forced the layoff of 50 people in the last two years in SAD 47 alone, according to Morse.
Also for the first time, a few classes — advanced placement biology among them — will be open to students from all three high schools. The schools are only fifteen minutes apart.
The three school district have yet to mesh day-to-day class schedules, but that is coming. As is joint professional development. “Let’s work together, we don’t need to all reinvent the wheel,” says Morse.
Also coming is distance learning, which links students and teachers in far flung locations via interactive video. “I think it looks promising,” Morse said. Also promising is the possibility of merging alternative education and summer school programs for kids struggling to meet new statewide graduation standards. Morse said it would be possible to pinpoint areas that individual students need to work on rather than send them all through the same program.
“If we put three high schools' resources together, we might be able to do a summer school that really makes sense,” said Morse. “We wouldn’t teach the whole course, it might just be writing they need to work on.”
Morse believes savings will be substantial and people will buy into it.
“I believe there are economies to be had,” he said.
“In Maine, if people can see a reasonable rationale and some kind of track record, then it makes sense. In some areas we’ll move faster than others,” he said.
At the Blue Hill Consolidated School in School Union 93, there are 36 students in eighth grade, but officials have identified only nine students who will attend kindergarten next year. The district’s enrollment next year is expected to be 183, a drop of nearly 40 percent since the mid 1990s.
The disappearing students is a distressing subject, says Superintendent Mark Hurvitt. “People are thinking: ‘where did all the kids go? What’s the deal?’"
A position will probably need to be eliminated, at a time when new statewide graduation standards require middle school grades to offer a foreign language, a difficult task with teachers already teaching three or four subjects, he said.
“You have to adjust to the set of circumstances you’re given,” said Hurvitt. “With one classroom less students, we have to do something.”
A long-range planning committee is evaluating the possibility of a school of only 150 students. Nothing substantive has yet emerged, he said.
“I don’t think they’re ready to give up a school,” said Hurvitt. Hurvitt says he would counsel against taking any action that cannot be reversed. He says he doubts the downturn in enrollment will be permanent. “I’m not sure it’s a long term trend. I have seen no data. I would be surprised because this is a very desirable place to live.”
Union 93 towns (which include Castine, Penobscot and Brooksville) receive very little financial aid from the state and Hurvitt doubts the state can exert much influence on the situation.
“I don’t think the state is flush with financial incentives to create leverage,” he said.
“If a community is willing to pay, I don’t see any way they can influence.”
Nor are taxpayers clamoring for immediate relief, he said. “No, they think the schools have a handle on the situation.”
Union 93 towns buy heating oil in bulk with Union 76 and tried contracting out bus service jointly but abandoned that when bids came in. “They were outrageously high. I have no idea why,” said Hurvitt.
EPS to tighten the screws
The purpose of the state’s education funding formula is to equalize educational opportunity for kids by using the state’s broad-based tax collection muscle to even out spending disparities between rich and poor communities. Poor communities get more help. Richer communities get little help.
But the broad equity principle of the General Purpose Aid to Education is barely recognizable anymore. It has been bent with adjustments for communities with unusually high expenses for transportation, special education and vocational education.
Over time, equity principles were further eroded by political pressure, state budget realities, stop-gap fixes, and partial reforms. The net effect of all the tinkering is a funding formula that hardly anyone understands and few defend.
Each community’s “foundation allocation” is based on a “per pupil guarantee” that is theoretically based on what the state believes should be spent on every public school student (not counting capital expenses) in order to provide an adequate education.
Currently, the “per pupil guarantee” of $4,816 does not come close to what the average school district is currently spending, which is $7,018.
Underfunding the “per pupil guarantee” is only one of the problems. Another weakness is the absence of any cost-containment measures.
Once a community exceeds the program cost circuit breaker, the state reimburses the full cost of additional spending, no questions asked.
Transportation and special education are the biggest budget-busters. Not surprisingly, it is not the needy communities that can afford to spend up to and beyond the circuit breaker. Some 75-80 percent of circuit breaker money goes to wealthier communities, says Rier.
The bottom-up rebuilding of the formula is called Essential Programs and Services model. It is the product of years of research and discussions involving the State Board of Education, Department of Education, the Legislature’s Education Committee, and the Maine Education Policy Research Institute. It was a formidable task to identify components of an essential education, attach cost figures to every item from clerical support to professional development, rebuild everything into a single model and fine tune it with adjustments for real-life situations. Although some of the sophisticated features are still being hammered out, EPS is moving off the drawing board and into the implementation stage. It becomes effective with the 2005-2006 school year.
EPS attempts to peg the true cost of ensuring every student meets the statewide graduation standards known as Learning Results. EPS does not change the method of distributing aid, which is still based on relative community wealth. However, several proposals are currently before the legislature to institute a mill rate threshold system that would be the basis of state/local education sharing.
It would be wrong to assume EPS represents any increased financial commitment by the state. It is a cost containment mechanism that funnels all state spending through a model that supports Learning Results and only Learning Results. Proof that EPS will entail big changes at the local level comes from cost projections. Under the current formula, total education spending on public education is rising by 4.5 percent a year - with special education leading the way at annual increases of 8 percent. Under EPS, total education spending will be ratcheted down to projected increases of 1.7 percent a year.
“It doesn’t mean when you are brought into EPS you’re going to get whacked, but the allocation model only recognizes costs associated with [Learning Results],” Rier said.
Who’s going to make up the difference?
It appears special education and transportation — two programs not yet incorporated into the EPS model — will eventually come under the greatest pressure to cut costs.
“We remained concerned,” said Rier. “We need to moderate growth in those programs. There need to be significant changes.”
That may mean standardizing criteria for identifying special ed students, some of which are “pretty vague and broad,” according to Rier. And it may mean more streamlined bus routes with fewer stops, he said.
Being more sensitive to enrollment changes than the current formula, EPS will put greater financial pressure on schools with declining enrollments. This may be self-evident since state aid would be tied to what it costs to educate a student. Instead of losing $4,816 from the state for each empty chair, the district would lose more like $5,500-6,000. “It will, in a more precise way, respond to declines in student enrollment,” explains Rier. “Today, if I’m in a school district that chooses to keep spending in the face of declining enrollment, the subsidy formula provides [insulation.] You could say it protects you.”
The message is starting to spread as superintendents across the state compare spreadsheets before and after EPS.
William Braun, superintendent in embattled SAD 48 in the Newport area, has “run the numbers multiple times.” He says the higher per student subsidy rates represented by EPS are a double-edged sword. They improve the bottom line for districts like his that depend heavily on state aid, but the financial pinch will be sharper if enrollment declines. Furthermore, adjustment won’t be easy because the enrollment declines are usually spread throughout grades, he points out.
“If I lose 25-30 kids one year, can I reduce my staff by one teacher? Absolutely not,” says Braun. “I’ll be missing a few here and a few there. If you lose one or two students in a class, it doesn’t make a significant enough impact to reduce staff.”
Braun’s message about EPS serves as a warning to others:
“No question about it, we’ll have to adjust a lot quicker,” he said.