Municipal Perspective on School Reorganization

(from Maine Townsman, August/September 2007)
Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

As summer turns to fall, local governments are beginning to shift their attention from debating the new school consolidation law the Legislature passed in June to implementing the law’s provisions. A diverse panel at the Maine Municipal Association’s annual convention October 3 will focus on the municipal role in school reform – and by all accounts municipal officials will have plenty to do.

While the initial phase of deciding which neighboring school districts might be most suitable as partners fell to local school boards, which will submit letters of intent to the Department of Education by August 31, all the subsequent steps leading to new regional school units explicitly involve municipal officials, said Norm Higgins, one of the convention panelists. “This is one of the biggest tests local government has faced in many years,” said Higgins, who has been an elected town official as well as a school board member, superintendent, principal and teacher. “It will work a lot better if there is broad participation, and the lines of communication remain open.”

Higgins, currently with the Department of Education, will be joined on the panel by, among others, Linda McGill, an attorney with Bernstein, Shur; Rick Lyons, superintendent of SAD 22 in Hampden, and Geoff Herman, MMA’s director of State and Federal Relations.

MMA conducted a brief e-mail survey of members to determine what the biggest concerns were about the school consolidation law, which is a 60-page section of LD 499, the biennial budget bill. To no one’s surprise, possible shifts to the property tax were cited by 86 percent of respondents, while 73 percent wanted to focus on the transfer of municipal property and debt obligations in forming new regional school units. The law’s new budget validation process, which will require a municipal referendum following adoption of each school budget, was of interest to 61 percent. And the new governance system for school districts, which will feature a single school board for each regional unit, was named by 57 percent.

The high level of interest for each proposed topic, which will all be discussed by the convention panel, also comes as no surprise. School expenses consume the majority of property tax dollars in Maine municipalities, and with imminent 55 percent state funding of General Purpose Aid to education, they are a major preoccupation of the Governor and Legislature as well.

In separate interviews, the convention panelists discussed the changes, and the challenges, for each Maine municipality, whether they decide to join new regional school units or not.

The discussion is timely for another reason, as Geoff Herman points out – the real 7-8 percent annual rise in state aid that municipalities have been seeing over four years will soon cease, and with declining enrollments statewide, school budgets will face significant pressure even beyond the mandated reductions contained in LD 499. “The increases in state support are definitely coming to an end” in fiscal 2009, Herman said. “We need to be prepared for that.” He said he hopes “that municipal officials will see this as an opportunity to get it right.” Their role will be to see that, “If we reorganize, savings will result and efficiencies are achieved.” While Herman said that many local officials are still skeptical that schools “can save a boatload of money” through consolidation, there’s little doubt that savings can be achieved “if we embed them into the plan for reorganization.”

A Big Committee Assignment

Municipal officials will be important to the process in several ways, Norm Higgins said. He heard a lot of fiery rhetoric in rural areas expressed during the 26 regional meetings held in June and July while facilitating nine of the meetings. He volunteered for those sessions, including appearances in Caribou, Fort Kent, Houlton, Lincoln, Skowhegan, Calais, and Machias, in part because of his experience in rural towns. He was elected to three terms as a selectman and served on the school board in Dover-Foxcroft, and was a teacher and superintendent in SAD 4 (Guilford) before moving to the Department of Education in 2000.

Higgins said that no one should minimize the difficulties involved in reorganization, but that municipal officials have a big part to play in making it successful. Once letters of intent have been filed, the next step is creating a reorganization plan, due in Augusta by December 1. A reorganization planning committee will be formed in each potential regional unit with equal representation from municipalities, schools and the public. Each town and city, in fact, should have representation, even though that will make some of the RPCs quite large.

In Piscataquis County, for instance, four current school administrative districts (SADs) involving 25 towns are considering whether to form a single regional unit or two smaller ones. “Seventy-five members is a lot to work with, but it’s the only way to get the whole picture, and we don’t want anyone left out,” Higgins said. He hopes that municipal officials will become fully involved from the beginning and not hang back. Since each new regional unit will have to be approved by a municipal referendum in each town, everyone needs a seat at the table, he said.

As it happens, Higgins already has some experience with a model similar to the RPC – which also bears some resemblance to the regional planning alliances proposed in legislation on school reform MMA backed, LD 804, although the RPC’s position in the process is different. Higgins, along with other officials from the public and private sector, was involved with the Maine Readiness Campaign, sponsored by the Mitchell Institute. It used the 26 vocational-technical regions to encourage better preparation for college in Maine’s public high schools. The regions where public and municipal participation was highest were the most successful in forging links between high school and post-secondary education, he said.

“This will affect public education and, in the larger sense, local government for the next 25 years,” Higgins said. “So it sure makes sense to get involved now.”

New Budget Process

One public official who’s already grappled with one of the law’s requirements is Superintendent Rick Lyons, during the annual school budget process in SAD 22, which comprises Hampden, Newburgh and Winterport. The three towns turned out to be the guinea pigs in the first test of the “budget validation” process designed by Geoff Hermann and Jim Rier, a former State Board of Education chair now at the Department of Education.

Even though SAD 22 already used a budget referendum that, in 1995, had required three votes before a budget was approved, Lyons was initially not in favor of the new process. It has a standardized set of budget categories for the school board or city council, but only a single question – approval or disapproval – was sent to a voter referendum.

There were three reasons for concern, he said. “First, I thought that it was unfair that it applied only to SADs and not other districts.” He also thought that the different formats – a set of line items to the school board, and a single question to the voters – could prove confusing, and third, that the costs associated with the referendum, an estimated $5,000-$7,000, amounted to another unfunded mandate from the state. Lyons said he is now happy to admit that he overestimated the difficulties and didn’t foresee the potential benefits.

“What I didn’t know was that bringing together the municipal side along with the school board creates an understanding that wasn’t there in the past,” he said. Under the new budget process, planning with municipal officials and the school board begins in October – rather than April, as in many school districts – with attention to school board goals, district needs, and the expected financial impact of various changes.

While Lyons said it’s definitely more work, and requires more staff time at both town and school offices, the extra effort pays off. “Over the last four years, things have gone much more smoothly, and the budget has passed the first time each year,” he said.

The budget validation system has also been adopted by SAD 63 (Holden) and SAD 43 (Rumford-Mexico). Now, it will be used statewide next year, even in municipal school departments, school union municipalities, and community school districts that have never had budget referendums before. “In terms of changes you’ll want to prepare for, that would be near the top,” observed Norm Higgins.

Uncharted Territory

One part of the bill that Linda McGill refers to as “uncharted territory” is the effect on employee contracts, including those negotiated with unions and those without collective bargaining. LD 499 says only that all existing contracts with employees must be honored, including the superintendents who are traditionally offered multi-year contracts – leading some potentially displaced superintendents to say, presumably in jest, that they might be working as janitors in a new regional school unit.

McGill, who has spent 25 years in public sector labor law, and recently moved to Bernstein, Shur, said that a great deal will depend on whether the joining together of existing school districts is seen as a merger, or whether the RSU being formed is a new entity. The latter approach was the one taken in the Bath area, where a private and special law, proposed as LD 910, provides a separate track for regional consolidation among five towns (Arrowsic, Georgetown, Phippsburg, West Bath, Woolwich) and the City of Bath, with a referendum vote scheduled this November.

Under that law, all existing employee contracts in the potential new district would end and unified new contracts would be negotiated for teachers, aides, and support personnel.

McGill said that the Bath approach might work for some other districts, but that it would have to be agreed on in advance of a vote on forming the new district, and authorized by the Legislature. Whether employee contracts are renegotiated or extend through several years after formation of an RSUs, there will still be many issues to sort out, she said. Differences in salaries and benefits for existing school districts, as well as working conditions, calendars and job duties will take a great deal of time and effort to resolve.

Employee negotiations, she noted, are one of the most time-consuming jobs for superintendents and school boards now, and it will likely take a little more time to harmonize contracts in a new RSU. She said that there are few precedents among Maine school districts for the legal process about to take place, but some of the differences to be negotiated can be surprising. In one public sector merger (not a school system) she recently facilitated, one entity had a unionized work force and the other did not.

Ultimately, having larger units and fewer contracts to negotiate may be seen as a positive change for the local officials and particularly the superintendents now responsible for them. But not before a lot of hard work and study take place.

“What should be realized up front is how these threshold decisions will affect so many aspects of contracts down the road. Understanding and anticipating what will happen later is what municipal officials should be thinking about now,” McGill said.

Room for Collaboration

The big question of the hour is whether the regionalization process envisioned by the legislation will work. One aspect to keep in mind, Higgins said, is that consolidation is not the only technique to be employed. Even though some existing districts may remain on their own – and more than two dozen are not required to consider consolidation – all can pursue other forms of collaboration, including non-classroom services such as transportation, building maintenance, food service, and collective bargaining. One example is the Casco Bay alliance, which includes at least five school systems of more than 2,500 students that are nonetheless exploring joint ventures to increase efficiency and better serve students. Larger communities often offer similar services to schools increasing the prospects of collaboration.

“While the emphasis now is clearly on efficiency,” Higgins said, “increasing educational attainment and improving the classroom experience is an equally important goal.” Rural areas that form new RSUs as a result of the current round of talks may find out that they can work with other RSUs collaboratively a few years down the road.

As for the now well-known legislative intent to reduce the number of Maine school districts from 290 to “around 80,” he is cautiously optimistic. Choosing his words carefully, he said that there is a “high probability” that the consolidation goal can be reached, and he based that view not only on the letters of intent that were beginning to come in by mid-August, but by his faith in Maine’s citizenry.

“These are great challenges to address in a short period of time,” he said. “But Maine people have risen to these kind of challenges before, and I believe they will continue to do so.”