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School Size – If Smaller is Better, What Is Maine Doing?

Come November, Maine voters will have the opportunity to vote down the state’s repressive school consolidation law.

Up in the tiny state of Maine, a great deal of time and energy over the past two years has centered upon the issue of school consolidation.

Initiated and pressed through the legislature by Democratic Governor John Baldacci, the move has been rightfully met with stiff opposition in many sectors of the state, particularly the more rural and less affluent areas. Thanks to the hard work of Skip Greenlaw and his push to create a citizen’s referendum, the issue will return this fall to the place it rightfully belongs, to the hands of Maine voters.

Enacting School Consolidation

Most educators and a large number of community members still have not forgiven the Governor for his heavy-handed approach to the matter of reducing the number of school districts in Maine. While the general consensus had been that Maine could reduce the number of school districts, that consensus was immediately weakened by the methods the governor utilized to bring about the change.

First, there was the fact that the governor made no mention of his plan to reduce the number of school districts while on the campaign trail. Once re-elected, he shocked the educational community with a proposed plan to reduce Maine’s 290 school districts to 26.

Particularly appalling was the governor’s own words at the time. Bill Nemitz, writing for the Maine Sunday Telegram quoted the governor as follows: “I’m not running for anything anymore. And I think I should take advantage of that for the citizens’ sake.”

The idea that he would admit to acting one way while campaigning and yet another once elected had some expressing that he lacked the “courage to stand up for what he truly thinks is right while running for office.”

The Maine writer went on to refer to the governor in a number of unflattering terms, calling him Baldacci the Bulldozer and likening him to the fictional character, Rocky Balboa.

Unrealistic Timeline

Within the governor’s push to consolidate were a number of unrealistic proposals. First, there was the two year timeline proposed to bring about the change and the number of potential districts.

Though the number of districts was later modified to a more manageable number of 80, the two-year timeline essentially remained intact. That timeline can certainly be tested as the state approaches the end of the second year.

To date, Maine voters have already rejected 22 of 46 proposed regional school units involving their local districts. Most recently, 11 of the 18 proposed were rejected in late January.

So more than half of the towns attempting to create regional school units have seen their community reject consolidation measures. Given that the heavy-handed approach includes stiff financial penalties for not consolidating, these votes are extremely telling of the current view of Maine citizens.

Unrealistic Projected Savings

Then there was the preposterous suggestion that within the first three years the state could see as much as $250 million in savings. Those numbers were later significantly revised to a projected $30-40 million annually.

yomanimusThose dollars were to come from the reduction of central office staff. In his proposal the governor insisted that those savings would come from the reduction of “back room office personnel.” He also insisted that districts would not need to reduce the number of schools to obtain such savings.

To get a sense of the comparative real savings, though several districts have in fact been approved, the estimates outside the Governor’s office have the consolidation work thus far saving about $1.6 million.

At the same time, many communities are finding that consolidation positively impacts one town in a proposed regional school unit but does so at the expense of another town in the RSU. At the same time there are a number of unresolved issues related to federal grant eligibility. At first glance, some new units now believe that creating a larger district may have negatively impacted their access to federal grant funds.

Unrealistic Implications

In addition to the unrealistic timeline and savings projections, the governor and his aides also insisted that consolidation was the path to improving the educational offerings for Maine students. That amazing claim continues to be part of the consolidation push but those who have done any research on the matter understand full well that there is no data to support this improvement assertion.

While no hard agreement exists on optimal school size, the research generally suggests a maximum of 300-400 students for elementary schools and 400-800 for secondary schools. In addition, many studies that seek to focus on the social and emotional aspects of student success conclude that no school should be larger than 500. Only in more affluent communities can test data support larger schools and in general, the poorer the school, the smaller it should be.

In addition, there is also clear research that there is no ideal size for school districts though generally smaller districts have better achievement, affective and social outcomes. More importantly, the larger a district becomes, the greater the district resources devoted to secondary and/or non-essential activities. And as with school size, there is a negative correlation between district size and student achievement when the student population is primarily low-income.

Ultimately, a review of the data indicates that the elimination of school districts will neither improve education nor enhance cost-effectiveness.

Will of the People

lachanceLast week, the Maine legislature elected to put aside several school consolidation amendment bills and wait to see what voters have to say come November. The willingness to defer to the will of people on this matter represented a refreshing change from the legislature’s willingness to tinker with the law previously.

It also contrasted with the governor who has continued his heavy-handed approach by pledging to actively work towards defeating the pending citizen’s referendum proposal.

So finally, this fall Maine voters will have the chance to speak collectively regarding the issue. The loss of local control and the clear data that larger schools are not equated with higher educational performance will certainly bring a number of votes to repeal the law. Those will likely be offset by voters who are of the fiscal mindset that school costs must be reduced.

For both of those groups as well as those yet undecided, the February 2009 edition of Rural Policy Matters explains why all citizens should cast the repressive consolidation law aside.
“Maine consolidation has become what state mandated consolidation usually becomes — something the rich force on the poor for the sake of cutting their state aid.” 
Flickr photos courtesy of SarekofVulcan, yomanimus and lachance.

1 comment

1 Joe { 04.16.09 at 4:13 am }

“I’m not running for anything anymore. And I think I should take advantage of that for the citizens’ sake”

– What a thing to say.

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