Representative Seth Berry on School Consolidation

Before Maine House Majority Whip Seth Berry (D-Bowdoinham) served in the legislature he taught students in New York City.  Rep. Berry has also acted as a consulting teacher in MSAD #57 and other schools in Maine.  With less than a month until Mainers decide whether or not to repeal school consolidation, voters need all the information they can get on Question 3. Rep. Berry has provided his thoughts on school consolidation, from its inception in 2007 to the present.  View Rep. Berry’s full statement after the cut.
In my view, school administrative consolidation is a good policy goal that has suffered from poor execution.  The Education Committee worked long and hard on this in 2007, but their work was unfortunately overturned.  Since then, the Committee has been handcuffed:  first by the measure’s inclusion in the budget, and since then by the pending repeal petition, which required that any legislative fixes become a “competing measure” on the ballot.
I have been a teacher for over 20 years, hold a Masters in Curriculum and Teaching, and have worked with schools and school systems across the country on educational reform.  What I have found is that positive reforms are best accomplished by providing incentives, clear targets, and a plan for short-term costs.  I don’t believe we provided any of these adequately when the law was first passed.  As a result, the idea has been predictably unpopular where it most needed to be well received.
In my own area, I am happy to report that RSU 2, or KIDS RSU, has been created and things have gone fairly well.  Community volunteer board members have had to work overtime to make the transition work, but their leadership and that of central office administrators has been flawless.  We are fortunate to be among the exceptions.  If the referendum passes, I will certainly want to help make sure that the newly created RSUs be allowed to stand as they now exist.
Whatever the outcome of the coming referendum, I think the Legislature needs to be very honest about its future approaches to finding savings.  Studies have shown a correlation between district size and administrative savings, but no causal link.  So my preference, from the start, has been that we simply allocate less money for back-office functions, and let local districts decide how best to cut those costs.

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One Response

  1. From Robert Webster
    Resident of Blue Hill

    The consolidation law should be repealed. A “yes” vote on Question #3 will restore fairness to the organization of school systems in Maine. Mandated consolidation does not work for rural areas. People throughout Maine should recognize and honor the votes of over 200 communities that rejected consolidation. Large school systems will not meet the needs of eastern and northern Maine.

    The consolidation law has been inconsistently applied and sometimes unfairly interpreted and implemented by the Commissioner of Education.

    • Maine laws since 1897 have always included a method for towns not well served by a school district or school union to withdraw. As interpreted by the Commissioner in 2007 and 2008 consolidation plans were not allowed to include withdrawal provisions in the proposed consolidation plans – even though the consolidation law was silent on this matter. Yet in 2009 the town of Allagash was allowed to include a withdrawal provision in its consolidation plan with Ft. Kent.

    • Schools systems exempt from consolidation (those with 2,500 or more students and the off shore islands) were required to submit plans to the Dept. of Education on how savings would be found in administration, special education and transportation. Exempt schools filed these plans. NONE of the exempt schools were required to implement any of those savings plans.

    • School systems with 1,200 up to 2,500 students were among the school systems required to create and vote on consolidation plans. School units of this size that voted down their plans were let off the “penalty” hook by the Commissioner. No penalties were imposed for these “middle size” districts. School systems with fewer than 1,200 students will suffer subsidy penalties in July of 2010.

    • The Commissioner rejected consolidation plans that did not find savings. Consolidation planning committees were told to list savings even if there were none. The Blue Hill-Deer Isle area consolidation plan was rejected twice by DOE and only approved on a third attempt after “savings” were included for subsidy that would be lost due to the subsidy penalty built into the law. Some communities that voted to consolidate felt “bullied” into it.

    A “yes” vote on Question #3 will restore our liberty and freedom. Maine citizens should be able to organize local schools in ways that make sense to us – without the threat of financial coercion from our own Dept. of Education. Repeal will re-establish the local authority of Maine towns and cities to organize local schools in the best interests of our own children. The consolidation law curtailed our freedom. Repeal will restore our freedom.

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