MSSC on school consolidation and finance (9/27/09)

TO: Statewide Media Organizations
FROM: Maine Small Schools Coalition
DATE: Monday, September 27, 2009
RE: MSCC Talks School Consolidation, Finance at Fall Summit

The Maine Small Schools Coalition (MSSC) met September 25 in Orono to discuss a range of issues from Maine's controversial school consolidation law to school finance and state education policy. Paul Stearns, superintendent of SAD 4 (Abbot, Cambridge, Guilford, Parkman, Sangerville and Wellington) covered most of these issues in a midmorning presentation.

Stearns explained that school consolidation does not save the state money because Maine only spends 3.2% of education funds on school administration. Stearns cited 2008 data from the Maine Department of Education (DOE), suggesting that policymakers should have looked harder at the other 95% of the pie before mandating reorganization.

“After these years of consolidation talk it's dawning upon [legislators] that there are large chunks of money in education, and that perhaps [school] system administration isn't the sole place to go to look to save the state from its financial dilemma.”

Stearns explained that mandated spending is part of the problem facing Maine today, and that if we're to get serious about saving money in education, legislators should look in that direction.

“This [quote] came from the National Association of State Budget Officers: Maine's expenditures are growing faster than its revenues, driven by increasing mandated spending,” he said. “One of the things that the Commissioner [of Education] and the Appropriations and Education Committees are looking at very seriously now is the amount of money and the increase in special education. The Commissioner has repeatedly pointed out that her administration has repeatedly come to the Legislature with language that says let's stay at the federal minimum [requirement]. And that's been ignored. The State of Maine has often more inclusive and more expensive language in the area of special ed, due to lobbying by special interest groups. The reality is that special education costs have gone up 6% a year for the last 8 years. It's absolutely unsustainable.”

Stearns also pointed to the Essential Programs & Services (EPS) funding formula as a driver of education costs.

“All you have to do is go back to the data. Since EPS has been implemented the cost of education has risen almost at twice the rate it did under the old formula which was awful. Perhaps that's not an efficiency.”

Stearns also noted that a statewide teachers contract would create additional costs because teachers in higher paying districts are not going to want to give up pay and benefits while those in lower paying districts are going to want equalization.

“One of the things that I hear about often is that we could save $50 million with a statewide teachers contract. The only way you're going to save $50 million on a statewide contract is if the teachers' union says that [they] don't want [that] $50 million [in pay and benefits],” he said, adding that this scenario is already playing out in reorganized districts, “It's a negotiated item, and that [negotiation] has [already] played out in the [newly formed] regional school units (RSUs) and alternative organizational structures (AOSs), and will play out on a larger scale. It's not 'rocket surgery' as someone told me.”

According to Stearns, something similar happens when towns with widely disparate per pupil costs try to come together. Those who are spending more per pupil shift the cost onto those who are spending less. At the same time, those districts who try to opt out because of increased cost are penalized for fiscally prudent policy, a situation which has put much of rural Maine in an untenable position.

Stearns concluded by predicting that Governor Baldacci will announce a sweeping curtailment later this year, although in his view, putting that off is not a good idea because it creates even greater uncertainty.

“My opinion is that those folks [legislators] need to get re-elected. If they were going to curtail something they need to do it last week. I don't think they're going to do anything. The superintendents have asked for that information as early as possible. We can take bad news. Just give it to us accurately and early. And I believe the Governor, faced with the numbers, is going to have to do a curtailment sooner or later this year. Every day that goes by, it makes it more difficult,” he said. “So waiting till the last minute is a problem. That's why superintendents said consider furlough days. Superintendents don't want to have kids not come to school, we'd like to have them there more, but that's why they came up with those strategies because it's real money, it's big money. That's why it was put on the table.”

MSSC also heard from municipal officials impacted by school consolidation, University of Maine professor Gordon Donaldson, Rep. Pete Johnson (R-Greenville) and Lawrence “Skip” Greenlaw, a Stonington man who spearheaded efforts to get repeal of school consolidation on the November 3 ballot. MSSC, which supports the initiative, also held several strategy sessions as they gear up for the fall campaign.

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