When asked if Maine should cut the number of school administrative districts from 290 to 75 to 80, a proposal being considered by state legislators, less than half said yes.

In the recent poll: 47.5 percent said they favored less school administration; 37.3 percent said they did not, and 15.3 percent said they didn’t know.

The numbers show some support for something Gov. John Baldacci has been saying needs to happen, said Patrick Murphy of Pan Atlantic SMS Group, the firm that conducted the poll.

“It wasn’t an overwhelming majority,” Murphy said. Rural and coastal Mainers were more likely to oppose consolidation than urban Mainers.

Murphy said he found the “don’t know” category low, considering the confusion surrounding the issue. The May 10-16 poll was the first time the consolidation question was asked, Murphy said.

Baldacci and others who support cutting school administration said Monday they were pleased with the poll results.

The numbers show strong support for reforming the overhead that administers Maine schools, Baldacci said Monday in a statement.

“People understand that our current system isn’t sustainable, and that we can’t just cut without changing the way districts are organized,” Baldacci said. If school budget cuts are made without changing the overhead, “we’re only going to be hurting kids in the classroom,” he said.

The governor said he supports the unanimous, bipartisan plan just approved by the Appropriations Committee, even though it’s different than what he proposed last winter.

In January, Baldacci proposed that Maine school districts shrink from 290 to 26. Legislators are now debating 80 districts with ideally 2,500 students in each one. That would not mean change for Lewiston and Auburn, or force the two cities to merge, since each has more than 2,500 students.

The governor is willing to live with 80 districts in Maine, but not more, said his spokesman, David Farmer. The legislative plan “will deliver property tax relief and improve the quality of education,” Baldacci said.

Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, called the poll results “encouraging when you consider how confusing this issue can be.”

Debate about consolidating districts involved a lot of “what does it all mean, and does it mean my school will close,” Connors said. “With all of that, to have 47 percent supporting is quite positive.”

The chamber has bought full-page newspaper ads encouraging support for the school administration consolidation and the proposed state budget, which cuts taxpayer money spent on education next year. The ads say, “The time has come” and Maine “students can’t wait” for change.

Lewiston businessman Peter Geiger, chairman of the Maine Coalition for Excellence in Education, said the poll results show a disconnect among some between taxes and school spending.

The percentage of people saying they don’t know “is fairly high,” Geiger said. While a small majority supports consolidation, other polling shows larger majorities favoring lower property taxes.

“Everybody likes to have lower taxes,” but lowering taxes means change, “not just schools, but the size of government,” Geiger said. “Everybody loves their school and school districts, but the flip side is we’re paying high taxes with a declining number of students.”

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