Gendron: Baldacci’s consolidation would lower property tax bills

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Gov. John Baldacci’s plan to slash school districts has two huge goals: improve education and lower taxes.

If lawmakers pass it, Maine homeowners will see their property taxes go down in 2009, Maine’s education boss insists.

Baldacci is proposing 26 regional school units statewide with 26 superintendents, compared to the existing 152 superintendents and 290 school units, said Maine Department of Education Commissioner Susan Gendron.

How much lower property tax bills would go from that change, Gendron said she couldn’t say.

But she promised that passage means two years from now homeowners will “absolutely see some change.”

Statewide, Baldacci is projecting about a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in savings every two years that taxpayers will no longer have to cover, Gendron said.

“As the governor was on the campaign trail, he heard over and over we have to provide property tax relief,” Gendron said. Education is the most expensive item in the state budget and in most municipal budgets. Education accounts for 46 percent of the state budget. “The only way we can get at efficiencies and not impact classrooms is to look at administration,” Gendron said.

By 2009 Maine will save $241 million every two years from overhead. Of that, $109 million will be money that towns and cities are now raising but won’t have to, Gendron said. Another $130 million is money that state taxpayers are now raising but won’t have to.

Other initiatives, including LD 1, have not provided property tax relief as intended.

This time the governor is insisting that taxpayers get savings.

“The governor said he will veto any budget that comes to him that does not have a guarantee provision that those dollars go back for property tax relief,” Gendron said.

“We actually have language we’ve been working on that will require documentation tied to next year’s (education) subsidy. You have to show that the mill rate was reduced, or the municipality took those dollars and provided a rebate. They’ll have to document that to the department.”

More citizen control

Savings is just one benefit of Baldacci’s proposal, the administration says. Other benefits are more empowered principals, parents and citizens, and improved education.

With the number of school boards and districts shrinking so dramatically, many worry local control will go out the window.

The opposite would be the case, Gendron said.

“What we’re doing is empowering and engaging local citizens in a much stronger way,” Gendron said. School building principals will be given more ability to make changes because the principal is the person most parents go to, Gendron said.

In addition, there’d be local advisory councils, made up of parents, who would work with principals to focus on programs and “ensure that the values from the community are truly being enacted.” Before school budgets are submitted, parents would work with principals, Gendron said, something that doesn’t happen now at most schools.

Then, when each of the 26 superintendents present their large district budget to the public, citizens in each district would get a say at that budget meeting. Attendees could go over each line of the budget and make suggestions, Gendron said. “At the end of that budget session the budget is set.”

Three days later, a referendum would be held for all registered voters in each region. “If a majority of citizens pass the budget, it’s enacted. If it’s defeated, the entire budget goes back to the board.”

Currently, in most municipalities school boards and town or city councils make all budget decisions, Gendron said. “This takes it directly to the people.”

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A better education

The proposed tighter, smaller administration would also lead to better education for Maine students, Gendron said, by better assuring each school attains the state’s high goals.

Gendron complained that because of different courses, resources and expectations among school systems, students are graduating with different educations. She said she wants all students to graduate ready for college or the work force, something she said is not happening across Maine now.

An international expert hired to review Maine’s educational system said the state must “tackle the fact we have 220 interpretations statewide of what it is we want our young people to achieve,” she said.

With fewer school administrative central offices and fewer superintendents, it will allow for more effective communication among everyone in the system, Gendron said. (The governor’s plan will not close any schools, Gendron said. Students will still go to school where they’re now going.)

And having larger, regional school administrative units will help schools improve offerings to students. For instance, highly successful programs – Lewiston High School’s “Early College” program is one example – could be expanded to other schools in the Lewiston region, Gendron said.

More Advanced Placement courses could be offered at more high schools, she said. “Some of our small high schools can’t offer those courses” because the numbers don’t justify hiring the teachers. But under the plan, “I can hire a teacher to teach AP physics. The district can now share that teacher. I might teach in Turner in the morning and Lewiston in the afternoon.”

Other changes for students under the plan:

* More students from needy families would qualify for college scholarships, an effort to boost the number of Maine students going to college.

* All high-schoolers would get laptop computers, just as 7th- and 8th-graders now do.

* A potential negative: Some middle and high school classes could be larger. A falling student population has meant some classes are smaller than 17. A change in the state funding formula would require class ratios of 17-to-1.

Concerns about Baldacci’s plan

The authors of consolidation plans that compete with Baldacci’s say that while consolidation must happen, they have worries with Baldacci’s proposal.

“The governor’s plan moves Maine in the right direction,” said James Carignan, chairman of the state Board of Education and a retired dean of Bates College in Lewiston.

“We need to increase efficiency; 290 school districts and 152 superintendents for less than 200,000 students doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” Carignan said.

Consolidation must happen and it must be mandatory, he said. “If we wait, our students would end up being behind the 8 ball in the 21st century.”

But Carignan’s concerned that Baldacci’s plan creates too few school districts. Having only 26 would make them too big for Maine, he said. His Maine Board of Education’s proposal recommends 60 to 65 districts. That’s because, he said, their research showed that’s where the best efficiencies are.

Geoff Herman of the Maine Municipal Association said he’s worried Baldacci’s plan will not achieve projected savings, and it might even cost more.

Herman is with a coalition recommending less dramatic consolidation. That coalition represents the MMA, the Maine Education Association, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Hospital Association.

Baldacci’s initiative “runs roughshod over community-based decision making,” Herman said. He likened it to parenting. “If I tell my kids I want them to do something and tell them exactly how, it’s not their project anymore. If I tell them what I want achieved, it’s their approach.”

Sen. Peter Mills, R-Skowhegan, also has researched consolidation and says it must happen. He predicted the governor’s plan is the only one that will pass, since it is in the state budget proposal.

One concern he has with Baldacci’s plan is that it could increase some costs as the salaries for lower-pay teachers are evened with those of higher-pay teachers from other districts when they all come under one big contract.

And “mega-districts” will make it more difficult for small towns to not be overpowered by larger towns and cities in the district, he said. Eventually the change could lead to districts deciding to close small, isolated schools.

“I’m not saying there aren’t some schools that shouldn’t be closed,” Mills said. “But it’s not fair (for the administration) to say ‘we’re not going to close any of Maine’s 750-ish schools,'” he noted.

For more information on Baldacci’s plan, go to http://www.maine.gov/education/supportingschools/index.html

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