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LePage: Regionalizing schools will save taxpayer dollars

Posted April 18

— Maine's Republican governor has a prescription for the sparsely populated, rural state's increasing education costs: Cut administrative costs and consolidate and regionalize school districts.

Gov. Paul LePage has been a long critic of the "top-heavy" education system and is lauding rural schools' efforts to work together to cut costs. As Maine's aging population dwindles, student enrollment is declining and per-pupil costs are rising.

LePage, accompanied by new Department of Education head Robert Hasson, said during a Tuesday press conference that the state has too many superintendents and not enough money in the classroom.

The governor's plan would create about a dozen regional school management districts providing services like payroll, transportation, nutrition and professional development at a lower cost. LePage said efforts to consolidate schools by his Democratic predecessor, John Baldacci, had a "fatal mistake."

"You can't consolidate without someone losing their jobs," said LePage, who supports shifting more education costs to local communities. The governor also said he wants a statewide standard for determining whether a student qualifies for special education, which he said is a factor in increasing costs.

LePage said his administration has awarded $3 million in grants to help schools with the upfront cost of combining resources with neighboring school districts. His budget proposal would cease state funding for superintendents and direct $11 million over the next two years for additional consolidation and regionalization proposals, which he says will save more money in the long run.

Maine School Superintendents Association President Steven Bailey said LePage's proposals face logistical barriers and opposition from communities that want local control and "visible and accessible" school superintendents. Bailey said it's great that LePage wants to help schools collaborate, but not if doing so takes away other streams of state funding.

"Even with a smaller number of superintendents, there still would need to be layers and layers of coordinators, assistant superintendents and other services to be able to meet the needs of the school systems," said Bailey, superintendent of the Central Lincoln County School System, which serves seven rural communities.

Another challenge to future school consolidation efforts, Bailey said, is the amount of time students would be spending on buses.

While the governor has repeatedly said Maine has 147 superintendents, Bailey said that number is actually around 131, including 99 full-time superintendents.

The governor's $6.8 billion budget proposal includes about $991 million for public schools, a $20 million drop from this year. Across the state, 5.3 percent of education expenditures last school year went to administration, which includes superintendents as well as business offices.

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