Education chief: Plan would cut number of teachers, but likely wouldn’t require layoffs

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AUGUSTA – If Gov. John Baldacci is successful in pushing his K-12 education reorganization through the Legislature, Maine could have fewer teachers, larger classrooms and a drastically reduced number of school boards.

Baldacci unveiled his plan Friday as part of the two-year state budget. On Monday, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron provided more details during a briefing with reporters from around the state.

The plan, which would cut the number of school administrative units from 152 to 26, could result in the loss of 650 teaching positions, Gendron said, but would not likely result in any layoffs because between 1,400 and 1,500 teachers quit the profession every year.

“Districts will hire fewer teachers in the first year of the initiative, but no layoffs will be necessary,” Gendron said.

Student-teacher ratios would increase to 17-to-1 for high schools and middle schools, which is the ratio now for elementary schools. Each of the 26 new school districts could opt to have smaller class sizes, but state funding would be set based on the 17-to-1 ratio, Gendron said.

The plan would also demote Maine’s 290 school boards to advisory panels and create in their place 26 regional boards. According to Gendron, the new school boards would have a minimum of five members and a maximum of 15.

Plans are already being made to help communities with the transition from local governance to regional governance, Gendron said.

According to Gendron, transition teams will be ready to roll on July 1 if the Legislature approves the plan and will work with existing school boards to gather information and prepare for the change. Implementation would begin in July 2008.

To pay for the transition teams, about $1.8 million already in the education budget has been reallocated, Gendron said.

Gendron also emphasized that no local schools would be closed as part of the plan and no students would be moved, but she also said that the regional boards could make the decision to close schools.

“I want to reassure all the citizens and all students their local schools stay in place, their local principals continue to lead those schools,” Gendron said. “What this initiative does is help us collapse 152 administrative offices currently in the state to 26.”

If a regional board did vote to close a local school, the move would have to be approved by voters, Gendron said. And the law maintains an appeals process through the Department of Education. Finally, a community could keep its school open by agreeing to reimburse the region for any savings lost by doing so.

As written, Gendron said, the plan does not include provisions for school choice within particular districts but it would not keep a small community, such as Fryeburg, from paying the tuition for its students to attend a private school.

A conference call with superintendents from around the state was scheduled for Monday but was canceled due to bad weather. That call was rescheduled for today at 3 p.m., Gendron said.

Beginning in fiscal 2009, the Baldacci administration estimates the reorganization will save $241 million in local and state education spending over three years. The Department of Education says the plan should save local school districts $30 million in 2009, $36 million in 2010 and $43 million in 2011.

Much of the state savings is reinvested in other education initiatives, including an expansion of the school laptop program into high school, more funding for the university and community college system and the creation of a new scholarship for Maine students.

While one of the biggest motivations behind the plan is to save taxpayers money, it’s not the only one, Gendron said.

“We are talking about shifting resources from central office administration to the classroom to achieve excellence in education for every student in every classroom in every local school,” Gendron said.

Separate from the reorganization, which the department is calling the Local Schools, Regional Support Initiative, is $178 million in new K-12 education funding, which is also included in the two-year budget.

The new money, which Baldacci wants local communities to use for tax relief, brings the state share of K-12 education spending to 55 percent of the total.

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