Baldacci’s plan tough measure… and long overdue

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The stack probably exists.

We tried to find it, after Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron told us about it. It’s the dusty pile of aging task force, blue ribbon commission, and panel reports from the past two-and-a-half decades that have recommended voluntary consolidation of Maine’s top-heavy school administration system.

Cumulatively, these reports have consumed a remarkable amount of bookshelf space. Unfortunately, they’ve done little else, as efforts to encourage regionalism by school districts have wrought ineffective initiatives, outright rejection, or indifference. The idea starts conversations that eventually drift away.

Now, Gov. John Baldacci is doing the talking.

He’s unveiled a mandatory plan to shrink the state’s school districts from 152 to 26, based on Maine’s successful technical school system. The governor is pushing this plan with a gunslinger’s swagger, an unusual role for him. Tough talk hasn’t exactly been his forte.

We’re delighted by this macho makeover, and the detailed answers presented by officials like Gendron about the merits – and obstacles – of the governor’s plan. We like “mandatory” most of all; in an editorial board meeting with the Sun Journal this week, Gendron said it best.

“We don’t think this will get done if it’s ever voluntary,” she said, leaving one to visualize the dusty stack teetering on her desk, then toppling like a rotten pine from the chain saw-like buzz of her words.

Wringing savings from Maine’s school districts takes more than strong statements, however; the powerful Maine Education Association, and the state’s superintendents, are wary of the proposal, and could offer staunch resistance.

Competing plans within the Legislature are also more than speed bumps.

The State Board of Education, the Maine Municipal Association, the Maine Children’s Alliance and several legislators all have ideas about reforming school administrations. The cacophony of plans is testimony to the issue’s urgency, into which Baldacci has injected a powerful steroid: political will.

None of these plans, alone, is likely the proper elixir to foster the desired effect: preservation of strong educational curriculums, maintenance of local input and control, and – most notably – creating the efficient school administration sorely needed to unburden Maine’s taxpayers.

Taken together, piece by piece, through a critical investigation by the Legislature’s Education and Appropriations committees, the correct formula will be refined from the competing plans.

In speaking to the newspaper, Gendron said there is flexibility in the governor’s figure of 26 regional districts, but that the funding is concrete. Good. Twenty-six seems low, and negotiation on the “golden mean” for Maine should occur. Some districts with unwieldy student populations could be divided.

Student-teacher ratios are critical. If regionalism creates schools with monstrous numbers of students per teacher, even if unintended, the thirst for efficiency will have made classrooms barren deserts in which the instruction, and receipt, of a good education could be lost.

There are concerns about the governor’s aggressive timetable to enact these sweeping reforms. Flexibility should exist here, as well, as the ends (consolidated school administrations, taxpayer savings) outweigh prolonged quibbling over the means.

Maine has already waited long enough for this proposal. The dusty stack is a symbol of the inability of the state to embrace needed, but painful, reform.

Governor, you’ve started what we hope is the last conversation on this topic.

We’re listening.

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