LEWISTON – School officials blasted Gov. John Baldacci Wednesday night for his plan to slash the number of school districts in Maine.
Baldacci and Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron came to Lewiston in the first of a series of statewide meetings to answer questions and get feedback about their plan to improve education and deliver property tax relief.
To do that, Maine must reduce the number of school districts and all that overhead from 152-plus to 26, they said.
“We have to move. We have to change,” Baldacci said, complaining that Maine’s spending on school administration is out of whack. He and educators must work together to provide “the best damn education we can,” and tax relief that “citizens have demanded year after year. We can do both,” he said.
But that message wasn’t embraced by the audience of about 200 at the Lewiston Middle School. At times, the audience, made up of largely school board members and administrators, was openly hostile.
“I still think you’re playing fast and loose” with money saved from jobs taken away “from real people,” said Michael Gosselin, chairman of Oakland’s SAD 47 board. He referred to language in Baldacci’s proposal that said parents, teachers and citizens would have a voice in how schools will be governed.
Are they implying “that now people are not now being represented?” Gosselin asked. How can a school board representing multiple towns better represent citizens than a board serving one town?
Gendron went through how the state would save and how her savings are conservative compared to consolidations in New Jersey and New York.
“I’m not sure you understand that this is not New Jersey and it’s not New York,” Gosselin said.
The audience applauded.
Gosselin observed several legislators were there. “What would happen if somebody had the bright idea to … reduce the size of the Maine House from 151 to, say, 26?”
Legislators should understand “why we’re upset,” he said. Perhaps Maine could save “by deep-sixing the Maine Senate? Nebraska does it with one house. Why can’t we?” Gosselin said to more applause.
Jim Morse, superintendent of SAD 47, also strongly rejected Baldacci’s plan.
“This does not feel like the John Baldacci I voted for,” Morse said. He complained that Baldacci is implying school administrators don’t put students first. “Every budget I put together is about the kids. The language being used needs to be less inflammatory.”
Administrator after administrator agreed that consolidation is needed, but that Baldacci’s plan isn’t doable.
“My greatest concern is the timeline” of the proposed 18 months, said James Hodgkins, superintendent of 43 in Rumford. “I don’t think it’s reasonable at all,” he said.
Neighboring SAD 21 merged with Peru. “It took them two years,” he said. SAD 43 and Rumford also came together. “That merger took five years,” Hodgkins said.
Betsy Bullard of Turner, who chairs the SAD 52 board, said some consolidation is necessary.
“However I have to apologize. I think I made a tactical error. I was leaving my home on the farm this evening. I didn’t wear boots that were nearly tall enough,” she said to laughter and applause.
Details of Baldacci’s plan “are pretty sketchy,” Bullard said. She tried to read how the state would save, “and the print is extremely fine.” Saving “$250 million sounds great. But I am no more convinced right now that’s an actual figure than I was when I sent that e-mail to the spam box … from Uganda who wanted to put $500 million in my bank account.”
On top of that, Bullard said, “We’re losing local control.”
David Das, Auburn School Committee chairman, and James Handy, Lewiston committee chairman, also raised questions about how the consolidation would work. Handy complained that the governor should have made his plan known in his recent re-election campaign.
Only one person who spoke praised Baldacci’s plan.
“Bravo! My goodness it’s about time!” said Jeannie Martin, who said she’s a Lewiston taxpayer and parent of two students. “You have brought a proposal in that I am so excited about,” she said. “If you can do this it will make such a difference for us as taxpayers who’ve been crying forever, and for our children.”
Martin told Baldacci she liked his idea of principals, teachers and parents working closer together. “Thank you very, very much and good luck.”
Baldacci will hold forums in Bangor, Portland and North Berwick in the next week.