AUGUSTA (AP) – Maine Education Commissioner Susan Gendron on Thursday told the panel of lawmakers that passed out a budget package containing a major school system consolidation plan that state officials are doing all they can to help communities comply with an Aug. 31 deadline for filing their initial reports.
Briefing the Appropriations Committee on start-up developments relating to the consolidation plan, Gendron said the Education Department stands ready to make facilitators available to local school units exploring options for teaming up with others.
Gendron also said department officials were contacting school systems they have not heard from to offer assistance. “We need to know on Aug. 31 where are these discussions,” Gendron told the committee.
The consolidation plan is designed to reduce the state’s 152 school administrative systems to 80. Upcoming as part of a series of deadlines is an end-of-August requirement for notifying the state of merger plans.
Final organization plans are due by Dec. 1, and by Jan. 15, 2008, cities and towns would be expected to vote on whether to approve mergers.
Appropriations panelists sought reassurance from Gendron on several points, urging that she work to ensure that reorganization plans are put together with a full spectrum of local input and that financial savings anticipated through school system mergers be fully spelled out.
On June 6, Maine lawmakers enacted a $6.3 billion state budget package, setting spending priorities for the next two years and mandating sweeping changes in how school administrative systems have been organized for decades.
The revised plan envisions 80 units, based on desired student populations of at least 2,500. Exceptions would be available, but stiff sanctions could face non-complying communities.
State savings in the first year have been booked at $36.5 million.
As summarized in a Web posting by the Education Department, the new law “sets forth state policy to ensure that schools be organized as units in order to provide equitable educational opportunities, rigorous academic programs, uniformity in delivering programs, a greater uniformity in tax rates, more efficient and effective use of limited resources, preservation of school choice and maximum opportunity to deliver services in an efficient manner.”
Existing school units must “work with other units to reorganize into larger, more efficient units; or where expansion of the unit would be impractical or inconsistent with state policy, reorganize their own administrative structures to reduce costs.”
Gendron said state officials, in offering guidance on compliance to local communities, were stressing a simple message.
“Your decisions need to be more than financial. … It’s about quality education for all kids,” she said.