Governor’s grasp on schools echoes Halsey’s thistle

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I was shocked when I heard about Gov. John Baldacci’s plan to radically consolidate Maine’s school districts. I wasn’t stunned by his proposal, but rather that he had the guts to actually offer such a bold plan. How could a governor known for offering relatively small budget changes over the last four years take such a far-reaching step?

Maybe he’s decided to take more chances in this, his last term. Whatever the reason, he is beginning to exercise courageous political leadership. It’s refreshing.

Baldacci is attempting to be a transactional leader. Essentially, he wants a swap with the residents of Maine: If you give up traditional methods of local control over education, you can have lower property taxes and improved K-12 public education. Call it a “grand bargain.”

It is officially identified as the Local Schools Regional Support Initiative (LSRS). The plan would create 26 regional centers out of the nearly 300 existing local school committees and boards. Some $241 million in state and local savings would be realized in four years, based on streamlined administrative functions.

I could cite various statistics about our property tax levels and the conditions of our K-12 public schools. But I won’t, as there are plenty of advocates on these issues who will use them to try and influence public debate. The key dynamic is this: The Baldacci administration must convince a majority of the Legislature that the current bloated school administration structure contributes to high property taxes and inadequate educational resources.

If they can, the plan might succeed.

Yet the administration must walk a political tightrope. If they are perceived as strident and unfairly singling out school administrators as prime examples of government waste, they risk a backlash. Some existing school districts, as well as various interest groups, might fight back and derail the plan. They could claim the promised savings won’t materialize. They could also point to other areas of state spending as better examples of waste.

If the administration compromises too early on the LSRS, however, they risk revolt from the fiscal right. There are numerous alternative legislative proposals which could complicate the initiative. Some are either voluntary, move much slower towards consolidation, or offer fewer savings than the governor’s plan. Fiscal conservatives who wish to greatly reduce spending might not find these alternatives acceptable.

One of the most controversial portions of the “grand bargain” is the local control angle. Baldacci’s plan envisions communities sending representatives to regional school boards. But will they be looking out for the interest of their communities, or their region? With procedural safeguards such as regional budget meetings and local advisory councils, the LSRS assumes, ultimately, these interests won’t be seen as conflicting.

Perhaps these new regional boards are the start of an attempt by our political leaders to redefine what Mainers conceive as local. Since the new regional centers would largely mirror the current Regional Career Technical Centers, the plan assumes what is now thought of as regional, will someday be envisaged as local.

For example, one proposed school district consists of Turner, Leeds, Litchfield, Minot, Auburn, Lewiston, Greene, Wales, Mechanic Falls, Poland, Durham, Sabattus and Lisbon. Even though these municipalities are unique, are they compatible enough – and close enough geographically – to logically consider their aggregate “local?”

The LSRS specifically states it won’t close or consolidate schools. It could create, however, a structure to make consolidating or closing schools easier. For example, small communities with tiny elementary schools might be pressured to close their school by a regional school board.

The context is critical: if the LSRS becomes law, there could be momentum to follow through on its logic. Will many small towns vote to disregard the wishes of the newly created regional school district? If a town did, it might be accused of acting parochially, and fortifying its insularity.

I hope the Baldacci administration can convince the Legislature the importance of swiftly reining the outdated and excessive administrative structure of Maine’s education system. I have a feeling he just might succeed because of his budgetary cleverness; he calculated some of the theoretical savings of his plan into the next state budget. Any reform that is slower, or less fundamental, might force the Legislature to look elsewhere to balance the budget. Health care cuts anyone? I doubt it.

Baldacci is not only a skillful budgeter, but with this proposal, he may be developing into a courageous leader. It seems he’s been inspired by the following quote attributed to Admiral William S. Halsey: “All problems become smaller if you don’t dodge them, but confront them. Touch a thistle timidly, and it pricks you; grasp it boldly, and its spines crumble.”

Grasp it boldly, the governor has.

Karl Trautman is the chairperson of the social sciences department at Central Maine Community College. He received his doctorate in political science from the University of Hawaii. He can be reached at karltrautman@yahoo.com

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