The Auburn School Department’s long hot summer will get a lot hotter politically, unless the superintendent and School Committee start using the kind of “critical thinking” skills they expect of the city’s students.

On Tuesday, the school system goes to referendum, seeking approval for a $37.67 million annual budget that would represent a 4.9 percent increase over last year. This follows a June 11 referendum in which the electorate, by a 3 to 2 ratio, rejected a proposed 6.9 percent school budget hike. Voters showed so little trust in the School Committee’s judgment during June’s balloting they opted to retain veto power over its budget proposals for the next three years.

I don’t object to the School Committee and superintendent proposing a modest budget hike, one which is in line with inflation and attempts to balance the needs of the school system against other pressing municipal needs.

However, I do object to their mindless advocacy for substantially increased school funding, usually phrased in such platitudes as “children are our future” and “we need to provide the best for our children.”

Yes, education is very important. But if those charged with running the public school system want to get this and future budgets passed without having to run the gauntlet of public referendums and recall petitions, they’ll heed the following advice.

First, they should pay attention to economic realities and stop acting as if education is so paramount it can be funded without consideration of unemployment levels, tax rates or property valuations. Auburn, for instance, levies more school taxes per resident than any Maine cities except South Portland, Biddeford and Bangor.

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Second, school budget requests should be appropriately prioritized to utilize scarce resources in the most cost-effective manner. Instead of reducing big-ticket positions, including an assistant superintendent and several assistant principals, in order to bring the proposed budget down to an acceptable level, the School Committee has nibbled away at lower-paying (and hence more vulnerable jobs), including a librarian, school secretary and special education teacher.

When I served on the School Committee in the late 1980s, we got rid of the assistant superintendent’s position on the theory that there were too many generals and not enough troops.

Well, the position is back. At that time, Edward Little High School, with a population of over 1,200 students, made due with a principal and two assistants. Now, with a population of less than 1,000, it has a principal and three assistants. (Auburn’s historical practice of hiring and promoting principals and superintendents mainly from within the system creates inter-personal relationships which probably make it harder to eliminate administrative positions.)

Third, the public has to be convinced that spending more money on schools will actually produce significantly better learning results, something unlikely to occur until Auburn and communities around the state and country undertake serious educational reform.

The Maine School Performance Grading System, introduced last May, gave Auburn mediocre grades — “C” to Edward Little High School and three elementary schools, “D” to Walton Elementary and Auburn Middle School, and “F” to Washburn School. Only East Auburn Elementary received an “A.” (Ironically, in its deliberations about the new budget, the School Committee initially considered closing East Auburn as a cost-saving measure.)

Though the Performance Grading System has been roundly denounced as unfair by many educators (who prefer to give rather than receive grades), it’s based on a number of objective measures which can’t be so easily dismissed, including, according to the State Department of Education’s website, “student achievement in reading and math, growth/progress in achievement, and, in particular, the performance and growth of the bottom 25 percent of students (for elementary schools) and the graduation rate (for high schools).”

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The need to reform systemic dysfunction in the nation’s public schools has become acute.

Simply put, the current system emphasizes quantity and uniformity while stifling quality and innovation.

Bill Gates, Microscoft’s founder, who has spent a chunk of his personal fortune studying ways to improve American education, has observed that “of all the variables under a school’s control, the single most decisive factor is excellent teaching. …   We need to build exceptional teacher personnel systems that identify great teaching, reward it, and help every teacher get better.”

Auburn’s system, like the vast majority of others, doesn’t do this, because the appropriate incentives aren’t in place.

Maine law requires collective bargaining for teachers. The Maine Education Association and National Federation of Teachers, which represent 77 percent of the state’s public teachers, negotiate for traditional union packages —  uniform pay scales based on time in service plus advanced degrees and periodic increases in pay and benefits for all teachers regardless of merit.

Without financial incentives for good performance or disincentives for bad performance, any profession will ultimately trend toward mediocrity. There will always be teachers who are talented, motivated and strive to do their best even in the absence of material rewards, but there will be more who do just enough to pass muster and a minority of incompetent or indifferent ones who are protected from dismissal by tenure (which kicks in after three years on the job).

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A merit-based system would encourage the spontaneous germination of teaching innovations from classroom practice and a competitive race to improve learning results.

Teachers would be motivated to emulate their most successful colleagues, adopting proven effective new techniques and best practices while discarding obsolete or ineffective ones. This seems a better way of improving teaching than the reform Auburn is attempting to impose by administrative fiat with the introduction of “Mass Customized Learning.”

Effective administrative leadership can also prove critical to supporting, guiding and mentoring good teachers, not to mention inspiring students. But here too the system has the wrong incentives in place.

School administrators are not “Top Guns,” hand-picked from an elite corps of teachers because of their leadership qualities and rewarded for enhancing student performance. Instead, they are self-selected, qualified by post-graduate degrees in educational administration, and often motivated by the prospect of escaping classroom drudgery and leapfrogging from uniform teacher pay scales to higher uniform administrative pay scales.

The typical administrator, therefore, is not apt to be like the charismatic inner-city principal, Joe Clark, of the movie, “Lean on Me,” roaming the corridors and classrooms, motivating the troops, leading from the front, and taking risks to improve student performance.

He is more likely to spend his time pushing paper and addressing student behavioral problems.

In short, if the School Committee and superintendent want to earn the trust of Auburn’s voters, they’re going to have demonstrate they’re sensitive to the economic hardships the community is already enduring, are willing to make cuts where it counts, and are prepared to undertake structural reforms that will translate educational investments into learning results.

Otherwise, voters will continue to vote “no” either at the ballot box or with their feet — moving away from the city or sending their children to magnet, charter or private schools.

Elliott L. Epstein,a local attorney, is founder of Museum L-A and an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He may be reached [email protected].


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