Message to administrators on superintendents’ agreements

Dear Superintendents,

Last fall, former Commissioner Stephen Bowen sent you a letter on the topic of superintendents’ agreements. In that letter, he explained why he has tended to overturn the superintendent transfer decisions that are appealed to him by Maine families more often than not, in the hope that it would make his thinking on the issue clearer to you.

Since then, the issue of superintendents’ agreements has emerged again, and two bills were passed during this last legislative session that amend the current law in important ways, effective Oct. 9. The purpose of this letter is to describe those changes to you and lay out the approach the Department intends to take on these appeals moving forward.

The first of the two amendments is Chapter 356 (LD 791), which establishes that superintendent transfers may only be made “to a receiving school administrative unit that operates a public school that includes the grade level of the student whose parent requests the transfer”. In other words, a high school student may not be transferred to a school administrative unit that does not operate a high school. Importantly, the way this law is drafted it prohibits any transfer of this type, even if both superintendents agree that such a transfer is in the best interest of the student.  Please note the Department did update you on these changes back in July via this Priority Notice.

The second update, Chapter 337 (LD 530), makes three important changes to the current transfer law.

First, the bill requires that if superintendents decide not to approve a transfer request, the superintendents “shall provide to the parent of the student requesting transfer under this paragraph a written description of the basis of their determination that the transfer is not in the student’s best interest.” There are two important elements here. Superintendents must inform parents of their refusal determination in writing, and, more importantly, superintendents must describe why the transfer is not in the best interest of the student.  

Secondly, the new law creates additional requirements for the commissioner, including that the commissioner “shall review the superintendents’ determination and communicate with the superintendents and with the parent of the student prior to making a decision.” This is typically done anyway, but is now required by law. Additionally, the commissioner “may approve or disapprove the transfer” and shall then “provide to the parent of the student and to the superintendents a written decision describing the basis of the commissioner’s determination that the transfer is or is not in the student’s best interest.” Like superintendents, then, the commissioner will be required henceforth to describe how his or her appeal determination is or is not in the “best interest” of the student.

The last element of Chapter 337 (LD 530) is the addition of a new appeal process:

“If dissatisfied with the commissioner’s decision, a parent of a student requesting transfer or either superintendent may, within 10 calendar days of the commissioner’s decision, request that the state board review the transfer. The state board shall review the commissioner’s determination and communicate with the commissioner, the superintendents and the parent of the student. The state board may approve or disapprove the transfer. The state board shall make a decision within 30 calendar days of receiving the request and shall provide to the parent of the student, the superintendents and the commissioner a written decision describing the basis of the state board’s determination that the transfer is or is not in the student’s best interest. The state board’s decision is final and binding.”

This is obviously a new step in the process. The State Board recently met to establish their process for handling appeals, which includes sending a letter to the parent, both superintendents and the commissioner describing the information that is already in the file and seeking any additional information for the board’s consideration; establishing the date and time when the appeal will be discussed in executive session; and ensuring a written decision will follow in a timely manner.

While the legislature did make these important changes to the law, it should be noted that they did not provide any further definition of what constitutes the “best interest” that superintendents, the commissioner and ultimately the State Board are to make their decisions based upon. As was the case during former Commissioner Bowen’s tenure, the Department believes if a transfer is going to increase the likelihood that a student will be successful in school, the transfer is in the student’s best interest. We have seen a number of letters from superintendents to parents refusing transfers on the grounds that the district has adopted some policy governing such transfers (which school boards have no statutory authority to do), or because such transfers are reserved for a “unique circumstance” of some kind or because of some financial or other consideration unrelated to the specific needs of the student in question. None of these reasons, in the Department’s determination, can be said to be reflective of the best interest of the student.

We hope this overview of the changes to the laws relating to superintendents’ agreements is helpful and makes clear our Department’s direction in processing the appeals we receive. Please contact me directly at commish.doe@maine.gov if we can provide further information.

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