Superintendents question plan to reduce districts


LEWISTON – School superintendents are reacting with concern and doubt to Gov. John Baldacci’s plan to sack more than 80 percent of them.

They wonder how the plan will achieve the kind of savings Baldacci predicts – $241 million in three years – by shrinking 152 central offices and administrators to 26.

What would happen to all of the labor contracts negotiated with current school boards?

How would school budgets be passed?

If state lawmakers approve Baldacci’s proposal, the plan would take effect on June 30, 2008. All of the existing superintendents and school district staffs – curriculum directors, special education directors, business managers and secretaries – would be out of jobs.

Some would be rehired in Maine’s reorganized school regions, to be up and running on July 1, 2008.

Maine’s 290 school boards and committees would be dissolved, replaced by 26 regional advisory boards. The smallest district would have 1,800 students, the largest 21,000.

The Lewiston and Auburn school departments would join 11 towns – Turner, Leeds, Litchfield, Minot, Greene, Wales, Mechanic Falls, Poland, Durham, Sabattus and Lisbon – in a massive new administrative region.

“The conventional wisdom is that some consolidation needs to occur,” said Lewiston Superintendent Leon Levesque.

But he and others question whether eliminating 83 percent of the state’s superintendents is too drastic.

“We’re not sure that the savings are there, as he’s projecting,” Levesque said.

Many questions

The plan left Auburn Superintendent Barbara Eretzian with lots of questions. “Knowing the time and energy it takes to run a system of 3,500 students, what would it take to run a system of 17,000?”

With a super-sized school region, superintendents would be “layered” away from the public. Their connections to schools, teachers and parents would be lost, superintendents said.

“In Lewiston, people pick up the phone and expect to speak to the superintendent. They want answers,” Levesque said. “People aren’t going to get the responses they want.”

Oxford Hills-area Superintendent Mark Eastman also is concerned, but his district would be the least affected, he said. It would merge with the Buckfield-area district. But some districts would become so large that the only place people would see their superintendent “is on TV,” Eastman said.

Eretzian questioned how the new superintendents would be able to do all that needs to be done. She said she works a full week and attends night meetings three or four times a week. “I don’t how I could do any more work,” she said.

Dixfield-area Superintendent Tom Ward and Rumford-area Superintendent Jim Hodgkin believe the governor’s plan is too extreme. Their districts would be merged with the Bethel-area district.

The geographic area of that proposed region is too large, Ward said. “They need to get all the facts. They need to spell out where the $250 million in savings is coming from,” he said.

Even if Baldacci’s plan is workable, “to do it within a year is ambitious, to say the least,” Lewiston’s Levesque said.

Mixed reactions

Not all superintendents are opposed to Baldacci’s plan. A few praised it, even if it would mean they were out of jobs.

Bethel-area Superintendent David Murphy, who recently was given a five-year-contract, called the plan a good idea. Some consolidation is needed, he said.

Quenten Clark, superintendent of Kingfield-area schools, said that if the governor delivers on creating better education at a lower cost, “we’d have to be nuts not to approve what he’s proposing.”

But whether Baldacci can deliver a better, lower-cost education system remains to be seen, Clark said, adding that the governor needs to show there are savings and how education would be enhanced.

Auburn’s Eretzian, who’s retiring in June, is worried that the quality of education would suffer. Energy needed to create new regions “will take away from energy needed to look at student achievement, staff teaching and learning.”

Lewiston and Auburn city councils now approve school spending in their respective cities. In Baldacci’s proposal the city councils wouldn’t have that authority, Eretzian said. “There wouldn’t be the local oversight.”

As proposed, the 26 superintendents would present regional budgets, followed by regional public hearings and citizen referendums. School budgets would be approved by voters, not elected officials.

Eretzian complained that Baldacci has not recognized the work that the 156 superintendents do. “To do away with them feels like a slap in the face.”

Some have described the governor’s plan as bold, Levesque said. “I describe it as not fully thought out.”

But he also said Baldacci’s plan could be an opportunity to start fresh.

“If I did seek a position and was fortunate enough to be one of the 26, then I could sit back and say, ‘Now, let me do it right,'” Levesque said. “That would be intriguing.”

Sun Journal staff writers Terry Karkos, Jessica Alaimo, Eileen Adams and Maggie Gill-Austern contributed to this report.

[email protected]