Maine’s education commissioner says efforts to consolidate will continue

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AUGUSTA — After two years as the state’s top public school official, Stephen Bowen, a former teacher and principal, said the state needs to do more to reduce the costs of public school administration to get more resources into classrooms.

Bowen, the state’s education commissioner, said there may be legislation to encourage more school district consolidation with financial incentives, but he doesn’t see anything as heavy-handed as the consolidation mandates that went into effect under former Gov. John Baldacci.

“I don’t think we will go down that road,” Bowen said. “But we’ve got to figure out how to support regionalization, because those are high costs and if we can figure out ways to regionalize and contain costs and move those resources from administration to the classroom, then that’s where you are going to find your dollars to do your professional development and train your teachers and so forth.”

Education policy under the first two years of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration focused on some key law and policy changes, Bowen said, including the creation of a charter school process in Maine, laws that link staff pay to student performance and a new set of high school diploma standards.

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Bowen said the administration now hopes to turn its focus toward helping Maine’s many school districts in implementing those changes.

“We are asking districts to take on some really big changes in a time of very tight fiscal constraints,” Bowen said. “So, in my mind, the work for the next two years really has to be, ‘How do we help them do that?'”

Maine is moving away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach for schools that might not meet federal standards for student progress. The department hopes to work closely with districts and schools to identify areas for improvement and to create a targeted plan for improvement.

“I don’t see us going in and saying, ‘You’ve fallen into this bucket because of whatever combination of test scores, or whatever, so now we are just going to make you do this list of stuff no matter who you are,'” Bowen said. “I think we really want to get to, ‘Let’s figure out where you need some help and figure out how to get you that help.'”

Sometimes that help will come in the form of connecting districts to pre-existing programs or information resources in Maine or elsewhere, Bowen said. To that end, the department has spent much of the past year rebuilding its website so it is a better tool for districts to communicate with each other and the department, Bowen said.

“That all speaks to the need for us as an agency to be more targeted in the kind of support that we provide,” he said.

Bowen said he anticipated several bills to address school security and safety in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.

He hadn’t formed an opinion on what the approach should be for Maine and he hadn’t endorsed any of the proposals floated nationally, including putting armed police or security guards into every school or arming teachers.

He said state officials including those from LePage’s staff, the commissioner of public safety, the Maine State Police Tactical Team, school officials and others would meet sometime this month to discuss possible policy changes in school security.

The Education Department and individual districts have all been reviewing their student and building safety and security procedures and would continue to look for ways to keep Maine’s public schools as safe as possible, he said.

He said several things had to be addressed, including lockdown drills and how police training is conducted at schools. For example, should “active shooter” drills be conducted with students in the building?

The balance between security and a comfortable learning enviroment is a challenge for educators across the country, Bowen said.

“I don’t think we want our schools to be fortresses and kids to be patted down coming into the building,” Bowen said. “Is that the feeling you want to impress on visitors to the building? Maybe it gives you a feeling of security and safety knowing there’s a police officer there and there’s security, but I don’t know. It can give you some anxiety, too.”

Much discussion on the topic will take place in the Legislature this year, he said.

sthistle@sunjournal.com

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