Budget plan may not be easy sell


AUGUSTA – A consensus may be emerging in the state that K-12 school administration costs should be cut, but that doesn’t guarantee that Gov. John Baldacci’s plans will be an easy sell.

In his budget presented Friday, Baldacci laid out a frantic schedule to reduce the number of school administrative districts in the state from 152 to 26 and to begin notching savings by July 1, 2008.

While many of the plan’s details are still being formed, there was enough information ready on Friday to give some lawmakers and local school officials pause.

The plan would align Maine schools into regions largely mirroring the existing Career Technical Centers. Local school boards would likely lose their ability to set policy, becoming advisory in nature, and would be replaced by regional school boards.

For fiscal years 2009 and 2010, Baldacci said the plan would save local and state governments $241 million.

“‘Wow’ is my first comment,” said Jim Handy, the chairman of the Lewiston School Committee. “I’m really concerned that what’s happening is adding another layer of bureaucracy under the guise of streamlining.”

Handy called Baldacci’s idea to use the vocational structure a “huge monstrosity of a bureaucratic structure” that would put distance between communities and their schools. “How do they impact a school department that is so large and cumbersome?”

Robert English, the chairman of the Oak Hill School Committee and member of the Wales and Union 44 school committees, said he had listened to what the governor has had to say and understood the need for change but worried that the plan could be “too dramatic.”

“There’s savings to be had administratively, but it has to be done smartly,” English said.

The issue, he said, is maintaining local control.

Because Wales is so small, the community already has a hard time being heard in Union 44, English said. In a bigger district, that could be even worse. “My town would have no say, and whose school is going to get closed first?”

Baldacci’s plan does not call for the closing of any schools. It would, however, increase class sizes in high school and middle school and could mean an eventual reduction in the number of teachers in the state.

Of the $241 million in projected savings, the state would reinvest its share – about $132 million over two years – into education. The state’s popular school laptop program would be expanded to include seventh through 12th grades. The 151 schools without a full-time principal would get one. About $3.6 million would be used to increase teacher salaries. And $2,000 college scholarships would be available to more than 15,000 students over the next four years.

Localities, which are projected to save $109 million, could use the money as they see fit, according to the Department of Education.

The education plan does not include the $178 million in new school funding included in the budget. That money is separate and not part of the administrative consolidation plan and is intended to be used to lower property taxes and meet the state’s obligation to fund 55 percent of K-12 education.

“The governor has been listening to the people of Maine, and the people want bold action,” said state Sen. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston, chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee.

“We believe strongly in state and local control,” she said. “But when you take bold action, there are sacrifices. People in Maine have said they want lower property taxes. That means there are services that are going to have to be given up.”

The governor’s plan isn’t the only piece of legislation that addresses school reform, Rotundo said.

“My feeling is that something will come forward,” she said. “Will it look like the governor’s proposal? I don’t know. But I feel strongly that there will be action.”