Competing Lewiston and Auburn merger signs on the rotary in Auburn. 

If Lewiston and Auburn voters approve merging the two cities Nov. 7, it would mean that in 2020 L-A would have the largest school district in Maine.

Portland schools have about 6,790 students. A combined L-A school district would have more than 9,000, giving Lewiston-Auburn schools more political clout.

Both pro- and anti-merger leaders agree that a merger wouldn’t mean changes in state funding, because the districts are already similar in how much they spend and how much they receive from the state.

But the campaigns disagree on what a merger would mean for individual schools.

Merger advocates say local schools would continue as are. There would still be the Blue Devils at Lewiston High School, the Red Eddies at Edward Little High School and six elementary schools in each city.

Opponents say one combined city would threaten Auburn’s neighborhood schools.

Jim Rier, former Maine Department of Education commissioner and an expert on state funding, said a merger wouldn’t decrease — or increase — state aid to education to Lewiston-Auburn.

Speaking from his home during a recent phone interview, Rier said that when it comes to the state funding formula, combining the Lewiston and Auburn school districts “would be pretty straightforward.”

Lewiston and Auburn have similar demographics, such as average income, factors considered when the state determines how much each school district receives. Both cities spend near the minimum required to receive full state funding under the Essential Programs and Services formula.

It would be different if Lewiston or Auburn “were spending dramatically differently,” Rier said. “But they both have been struggling to meet the EPS requirement.”

Combining Lewiston and Auburn would not be like combining Cape Elizabeth and Calais, a rich and poor district with different demographics, he said.

Merging Lewiston and Auburn school departments would produce “about the same mill rate,” Rier said. It’s impossible to know exactly how the funding would play out if the two were combined in 2020, “but I don’t see any adverse impact, together or not.”

A merger could mean advantages when it comes to programs, Rier said. A combined district could mean more flexibility, for example, to specialize schools to meet student needs.

Opposition: Bigger isn’t better

If voters create one city, Auburn can kiss some of its elementary schools goodbye “and say hello to the big yellow school bus,” according to the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation.

Speaking for the coalition, Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said a merger would threaten Auburn’s neighborhood schools.

“Come 2020, there’d be a unified school committee. The clock will be ticking to the closure of a number of elementary schools,” LaBonte said. “Lewiston voters would become the majority in the new city. Lewiston’s approach of larger elementary schools is the opposite of Auburn’s approach of neighborhood community schools.”

Lewiston’s Connors Elementary School, under construction, will hold about 880 students. “A school that size would fit Sherwood Heights, Walton and East Auburn,” LaBonte said. 

East Auburn School is the smallest, with an enrollment of 189. That school has been targeted for closure more than once in recent years during Auburn budget talks. After parents protested, the School Committee took East Auburn off the chopping block.

The Lewiston-Auburn Charter Commission recommends keeping existing schools, but LaBonte said there’s nothing binding in the charter that protects any school. “Anything they say about that is not fact,” he said. “If they wanted to protect the schools, they could have put that in the consolidation agreement.”

The Charter Commission “is getting away with hypotheticals,” LaBonte said. “There’s no way in hell that on one side of the river you’d have a school with 900 students, and on the west side of the river the East Auburn Community School with 189 students would stay open.”

LaBonte “is doing a hypothetical” said Gene Geiger of the the One LA campaign. “It’s a scare tactic to say Lewiston is building a new elementary school and the Auburn side would do the same thing. It is not logical.” 

The referendum and charter recommendation suggest merging school districts, having one superintendent’s office and one school committee, Geiger said. “It would plot a course for the future.” 

LaBonte’s point that “three Auburn schools could fit into the Connors School is hypothetical,” Geiger said. “The fact is, we need every school building we have. You’re not going to rip down three or four Auburn schools and put up a new one. That would be hugely expensive.”

Building a new school needs state approval. Getting state approval takes years, if it comes at all. “It’s not logical to think that because one school district has large schools, you’d shut down schools and no longer have neighborhood schools,” Geiger said. “You want to use every facility you have, not throw away what you have.”

Geiger said parents by and large want neighborhood schools. “The school committee is responsive to parents.”

School officials say a merger would not change schools.

There would be some administrative changes with a merger, Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster said. “I do not, however, foresee any changes in schools based upon the knowledge that I have today.”

Auburn School Committee Chairman Tom Kendall said he didn’t think a merger vote either way “would have any impact on the direction the School Department and the community would take regarding neighborhood schools.”

Future decisions will be based on what would serve the interests of a quality education and reflect fiscal responsibility, Kendall said. 

Initial savings small

The One LA campaign projects that by combining the two districts, about $455,000 a year could be saved by merging central offices, having one superintendent, one business office and one school committee.

Long-term savings could be higher, depending on which programs are merged.

The $455,000 savings is small, less than one half of a percent, considering what the size of the combined school budget would be: about $116 million. 

The One LA campaign says one district would make it the biggest in Maine and the best. If a Lewiston-Auburn school district had 9,000 students, it would allow officials “to rethink and reinvent our education system. We can make it the best.”

That would improve economic development, which would draw more talented people to the community, attracting good companies, the campaign said.

The opposition disagrees that bigger would be better.

There’s no reason Lewiston and Auburn schools can’t work together without a merger to share special education programs and technical career courses or expand early college courses, LaBonte said.  

If voters approve a merger, Lewiston and Auburn school superintendents said they’ll work to maintain individual schools’ identities, and that decisions will be guided by what’s best for students.

“Whatever happens, we’re going to make it work,” Webster said.

A merger could make some things easier for students and families, such as attending a school of their choice in either city, Webster said. “But that can still happen absent a merger,” Webster said. “(Auburn Superintendent) Katy (Grondin) and I already do more superintendent agreements in Maine” than other districts.

With a new Edward Little High School being planned, a merger could make it easier to add more vocational classes in Auburn. Merger or not, more technical classes are needed at Edward Little, Webster said.

Grondin said she was unsure whether a merger would save much money or improve education. Becoming the largest district in Maine “would come with a lot of challenges,” she said.

Lewiston and Auburn administrative spending is already low, as is per-pupil spending, Grondin said. During the past 10 years, budget cuts have been made “farthest away from the classroom,” which means fewer people in the central office.

Auburn’s assistant superintendent is also the homeless student liaison. Lewiston and Auburn schools share one adult education director. “We have to keep looking for savings, regardless of a merger.”

Sometimes change can offer advantages, Grondin said. “There may be opportunities we haven’t considered.”

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Gene Geiger, leading the The OneLA campaign, said combining the cities would mean better programs and better opportunities for students.

Auburn Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said if Lewiston-Auburn merges, Auburn’s neighborhood schools would be threatened.  LaBonte was speaking for the Coalition Opposed to Lewiston-Auburn Consolidation.

L-A school spending

Per pupil spending in 2015-16:

Auburn: $9,424; Lewiston: $9,357; state average: $11,083.

(Excludes career and technical education)

Student populations

Lewiston: 5,502

Auburn: 3,630

Schools

Lewiston has six elementary schools with an average enrollment of 536. The smallest school is Martel, with 302 students; the largest is Montello with 724 students. Also, one middle school, enrollment 775; one high school, enrollment 1,400; and five alternative programs: Lewiston High School Alternative, Lewiston Middle School Alternative, Dingley School, Lewiston Academy and Star Academy.

Auburn has six elementary schools with an average enrollment of 347. The smallest school is East Auburn, with 189 students; the largest is Fairview, with 565 students. Also, one middle school, enrollment 509; one high school, enrollment 976; and one alternative school, Franklin, enrollment 67.

Sources: Maine Department of Education, Lewiston and Auburn school departments


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