PRIORITY NOTICE: Misinformation Diminishes Opportunities for Students

The Maine Department of Education responds, point-by-point, to a recent article in the Sun Journal that contains numerous inaccuracies about regionalization. Many stakeholders agree that finding efficiencies through regionalization efforts is a good idea for students and school communities. We hope that our clarifications will allow the positive conversations to continue.

KINGFIELD — The Regional School Unit 58 board of directors faced a no-win situation, deciding to accept a Maine Department of Education $31,000 penalty, rather than partnering with another school district to develop a regional service center.

The state has provided a highly flexible, locally-driven regionalization opportunity that every district should be able to participate in and thereby receive the incentive funds.

The problem wasn’t that the district couldn’t find a partner district and develop a plan, Superintendent Susan Pratt told the board Thursday night. The problem was that they were facing a six-week deadline to find another school willing and ready to form a long-term agreement without receiving any guidance from the state. 

The current deadline is only for regional centers slated to be operational as of July 1, 2018. In these cases, in order for the Department to include the incentive funding for the 2018-19 school year, we must stick to a tight timeline. Districts can pursue a regional partnership for 2019 or later if the current deadline is not feasible. Also, while the regional partnerships are meant to be long-term and durable, the programs and services can start small and be expanded over time.

She and other district administrators attended a Sept. 8 presentation at the Augusta Civic Center hosted by the Maine School Management Association and the Drummond Woodsum law firm. The MDOE proposal was reviewed and explained, but she waited nearly another month for the actual MDOE application form to become available online, she said.

“I just got the application last Friday,” she said.

The application has been divided into two sections; Part I is due by November 30, and Part II is due by April 15. The first part, which asks for concept-level information, allows districts to notify the Department of their intent to form a regional center. The second part asks for a longer, more detailed plan, including the interlocal agreement.

Similar to consolidation efforts begun by former Commissioner of Education Susan Gendron in January 2008, the MDOE’s goal is to save money by reducing the administrative costs and to take advantage of shared services, including transportation, special education, professional development and financial services.

The Department’s goal is more precisely to improve educational services for students. This can be achieved by repurposing savings to enhance existing educational programs or to develop new programs, which can save more money in the long run by better serving students.

Gendron’s plan was to reduce the number of school districts and local school committees from 290 to 26 by July 2008. Many districts chose to pay penalties rather than give up local control, and by July 2008, 215 individual school districts remained.

The state is not asking districts to pay penalties; we are giving districts who regionalize additional funding. This is not mere semantics. All districts will see incremental reductions in state funding for district-level administration as a result of legislation prompted by the Citizens Initiative. These reductions will occur regardless of whether a district participates in a regional center. At the same time, however, more state money will be directed to teaching and learning; this along with other changes in the biennial budget will result in nearly all districts in the state seeing significant increases in funding. Forming a regional center is an opportunity to earn an extra incentive allotment.

With this 2017 regional services plan, Pratt explained, each new interlocal partnership in the state would have to screen and hire its own executive director, who would not be part of the Maine State Retirement System.

The Department believes that it is in the best interest of regional center members to define the role of the executive director based on the services provided, and to retain local control over hiring an executive director.

The MDOE will pay for 55 percent of the employee’s salary and related financial expenses, but the partnering districts will be responsible for benefits and obligations that are as yet unknown, Pratt said. Without the MDOE providing guidance for the executive director’s job description, she said, each interlocal partnership’s new board would have to that job on its own. 

These details all have to be decided before the new partner districts can send the application to the MDOE, Pratt said.

Chapter 123 of the biennial budget states that the State will pay 55% percent of the executive director’s salary and benefits. The Department is actively looking into addressing concerns about participation in MEPERS for employees of regional centers.

The MDOE has awarded grants in 2017 to encourage cost-saving initiatives. Enabling Maine Students to Benefit from Regional and Coordinated Approaches to Education, known by the acronym EMBRACE, was launched in response to Executive Order 2017-001, issued by Gov. Paul LePage, for promoting Regional Efforts to Achieve Efficiencies in Delivering Educational Services. 

Although Pratt said she agrees with LePage’s goal of sharing resources with other districts, RSU 58 already does something similar. The district is part of the Western Maine Educational Collaborative, which provides its 13 member school systems with opportunities to share professional development, purchasing power and educational resources.

The MDOE plan would not recognize the nonprofit WMEC as a regional services partner, Pratt said.

The Western Maine Education Collaborative is a great model for a regional center. We do not know the source of the information that the WMEC would not quality as a regional center if it meets the requirements. It’s possible that this misunderstanding is a result of confusing the regional center opportunity with the Fund for the Efficient Delivery of Educational Services (FEDES) grant, a separate regionalization opportunity. WMEC could not be the main applicant for the FEDES grant; however, they could be part of a regionalization project as a contracted service provider.

The board approved delaying any partnership plans with other school districts and accepting the $46-per-student penalty for the coming budget year. 

Districts that do not form interlocal partnerships in 2018-19 will pay a $92-per-student penalty.

Some neighboring school districts’ boards have not even seen the MDOE plan, Pratt said, and she’s hearing that many superintendents and school boards are voting not to participate in the governor’s mandate.

Many school boards rely on their superintendents and association to inform their decisions. To support the dissemination of accurate information, the Department launched its EMBRACE information center shortly after the biennial budget was passed and continues to add and update information. Many of the resources added to our website are in response to conversations that superintendents have had with Commissioner Hasson and his team during the Commissioner’s Continuing the Conversation Tour. Several districts are eager to begin discussions and have requested one of our trained expert facilitators to help potential partners brainstorm and plan. School Board members and others are encouraged to visit the site to learn about the funding opportunities and be inspired by the exciting regional programs other districts have implemented in the first round of EMBRACE initiatives.

Please feel free to contact Jennifer Pooler, Regionalization Project Manager, to set up a meeting or ask questions. And we encourage you to meet the Commissioner at the 44th Annual MSMA Fall Conference and attend the Department’s clinic on Friday, Embracing Regionalization: The Options. We welcome all conversations.