Bowen testimony in opposition to giving AOS’s authority to approve student transfers

The Maine Legislature’s Education Committee held a public hearing March 25 on legislation that gives a local school committee of an alternative organizational structure the authority to approve student transfer requests.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen delivered the following testimony opposing LD 880, An Act to Change the Process for Student Transfers from an Alternative Organizational Structure.

Testimony of Stephen Bowen, Commissioner of Education

Senator Millett, Representative MacDonald, and Members of the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs:

My name is Stephen Bowen, I am the Commissioner of Education for the State of Maine, and I am here today representing the Department speaking in opposition to L.D. 880, An Act to Change the Process for Student Transfers from an Alternative Organizational Structure.

The Department struggled a little with its testimony on this bill because we found the bill to be unclear in its intent.

The bill does not strike any of the existing superintendent transfer language, and so it would appear that all of that existing language is to remain in place, including the language authorizing the superintendents to approve transfers between school administrative units. The existing language also allows parents to appeal a superintendent’s denial of transfers to the Commissioner.  Again, we assume this language is to remain in place, though it is unclear whether the appeal process would also be available to families impacted by the bill’s proposed changes.

This bill would add new language that would evidently give the school boards of the municipalities within an Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS) the authority to approve transfers between the municipal units within an AOS and between the AOS and neighboring school administrative units.  Because no other language in this section of the statute is amended or removed, we take that to mean that the municipal school boards would be required to approve the transfer determinations currently made by the AOS superintendents.

It may be, however, that the intent of the legislation is to require families in AOS’s who seek to transfer to other school units to take their case to the school committee, rather than the superintendent.

The Department has a number of concerns with this proposed change, if this is indeed the change the legislation seeks to make.

First, the proposed language does not establish any standards by which school boards are to make their transfer determinations. The existing law uses a “best interest” standard for superintendents, but it is unclear whether this same best interest standard is to apply to school boards in AOS’s.  Given that we know from our experience with transfer appeals that school boards sometimes adopt a stricter set of transfer standards than the law allows, our concern is that school boards, absent some set of state standards for these transfers, may make it virtually impossible for families to seek transfers.

Second, we have concerns about replacing a private meeting with the superintendent, whereby families may explore options for students with some degree of confidentiality, with the more public appeal to the school board that this language appears to require. It is not hard to imagine that families comfortable with a private conversation with a superintendent might be intimidated by having to go before the school board with such a request in a public meeting. We fear this change will have a chilling effect on families and discourage them from seeking a transfer even though it may be in their child’s best interest.

Third, it is unclear what is to become of those students already attending school outside the AOS under an existing superintendent agreement. Are these agreements to be revisited and approved (or denied) by the school board even though they are already in place? Can the board, with its newfound authority, apply a different set of transfer standards and thus reverse the determination of their superintendent? If they do, is there any appeal of this determination? If there is no appeal, isn’t it likely that boards may require superintendents to implement transfer agreements (or cancel such agreements) even though the superintendent may not share the board’s determination of the student’s best interest?

The second part of the proposed language is unclear as well. The proposed language would make a transferred student a resident of the AOS or RSU to which transferred, but under current law, students in AOS’s are not residents of the AOS, but residents of the municipal school administrative unit within the AOS. This language is therefore inconsistent with existing law with regard to student residency in AOS’s.

In summary, there are a sizable number of unanswered questions here, and because the Department fears that at the end of the day this proposed change will ultimately make it more difficult for families to seek transfers than it is under current law, we oppose L.D. 880  An Act to Change the Process for Student Transfers from an Alternative Organizational Structure.

I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have, and I will be available for the work session.