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Maine School Districts Move to 'De-consolidate'
12/26/2012   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

Just a week ago, Gov. Paul LePage blasted the state for what he says is excessive admininstration in Maine's school districts. In an address to the Bangor Chamber of Commerce, Lepage said that Maine's 127 superintendents are simply too many for the 180,000 kids in the system. Now, with more budget cuts looming, it seems likely that Gov. LePage is looking for more streamlining, not less. Even so, some school districts are poised to go in a different direction, by "de-consolidating." A controversial state law encouraging schools to reorganize was passed more than five years ago, and now, with multiple consolidated districts looking to part ways, the state Department of Education is once again grappling with the issue.

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Maine School Districts Move to 'De-consolidate' Listen
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superintendent1

It's like a forced marriage, you know - those don't usually work out too well," says Robert McDaniel (above), superintendent for Alternative Organizational Structure 48 - or AOS 48 - which currently includes Hodgdon, Danforth, and eight other towns, near Houlton.

McDaniel is one of that list of 127 superintendents the governor would like to see culled. Before consolidation, McDaniel was superintendent for just one district - SAD 70 in Hodgdon. Now he oversees two districts and 10 towns, spread about 30 miles apart.

It used to be that he could hop on buses and visit with kids and teachers to see how things were going, and what needed to be done. After the consolidation, he says that pretty much stopped.

"I've not done as good a job as I think I should have done," he says. "There's a lot of meetings going on, and a lot of my time is spent here in this office. I don't get into the classrooms as much as I used to."

McDaniel says in the case of AOS 48, consolidation has been harmful, and that's why he is resigning as superintendent at the end of the school year.

School consolidation 1Hodgdon was one of the districts that initially resisted the state's reorganization plan - and that ended up costing the SAD a lot: It was penalized $93,000, which turned out to be the incentive it needed to - grudingly - pair up with SAD 14.

"I think there's no doubt that it made some people angry," says David Connerty-Marin. "I think it's also clear that it wasn't going to happen until there was some sort of either a strong incentive to do it or a dis-incentive to not do it."

Connerty-Marin is communications director for the Maine Department of Education. He says that the school consolidations have saved the state money - just how much, he's not sure. He says it's difficult to calculate. Moreover, there's a bigger principle at stake.

"But really the issue is, you know, what is going to provide the best educational opportunities for the students? And that's the piece that communities really need to look at, is the opportunites that you could actually provide for students as a go-alone unit, versus as part of a larger group," he says.

Regional School Unit 24 - or RSU 24 - in Eastern Maine is one group that has benefited from consolidation, says Connerty-Marin. The district is saving so much money on insurance that it has more to put toward its music, art, and
phys-ed programs.

But there are still several towns looking to pull out of their districts, even though proponents say the mergers have created better educational opportunities. David Bridgham is business manager for RSU 24. He says that initially he too was opposed to consolidation, but has since had a change of heart.

"It takes time for these things to - for these seeds to - be planted and to grow," Bridgham says. "I feel like three years hasn't been enough time for people to really get a grasp on the benefits."

But for Robert McDaniel at AOS 48, one year was long enough. "As to a benefit from one district to the other, for students, I don't see any benefit at all for them," he says. "Or haven't yet."

Some 38 towns have begun the first steps toward withdrawal this year, with at least four withdrawals complete. Undoing an AOS is simpler than attempting to pull out of an RSU. An AOS simply shares administration, and sometimes a few staff members. In an RSU, everything becomes the property of the RSU, and withdrawal can be a bit more complicated.

In all cases, a withdrawal must be approved by the voters of the district. David Connerty-Marin says that he expects that more than half of all withdrawal requests will be voted down.

As for Robert McDaniel, he's undecided on what he will do if the AOS is dissolved. He may stay on, but he says he's leaning toward retirement, whatever happens with the consolidation.

Photos by Nick Woodward.



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