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Forecaster Forum: Who's drinking the school consolidation Kool-Aid?

Opinion

Forecaster Forum: Who's drinking the school consolidation Kool-Aid?

According to Edgar Allen Beem ("The Universal Notebook," June 8), school leadership at School Administrative District 51 "could have (like the Yarmouth schools) sought high-performing exemptions" from school consolidation "had their educational leaders not drunk the consolidation Kool-Aid."

Frankly, as the SAD 51 board chairwoman during this period, I am not sure who is drinking the Kool-Aid.

Beem may be correct that the consolidation legislation is doomed, but not for the reasons he gives: "no educational benefits" and "no financial savings." If consolidation is repealed this November, it will be the result of a number of factors, including the adoption by the Legislature of a nonsensical and misunderstood school budget approval process. The unrelated and mandated change to the budget process, together with Gov. Baldacci's false promotion of immediate savings, may have doomed the effort from the start.

The final blow, however, is most likely the combination of the governor's unwillingness to bend on the time-line and the Legislature's inability to withstand political pressure from influential legislators seeking piecemeal exemptions for towns and islands like Yarmouth, Cape Elizabeth, Vinalhaven, York and Vassalboro.

Let's take a look at the facts:

Well before the governor floated his consolidation proposal, the leadership of SAD 51, Yarmouth, Falmouth, Freeport and Pownal were already meeting to consider the educational and financial benefits of consolidation. This group commissioned a study in 2006 by the New England School Development Council that showed the potential for more than $1 million in annual savings.

So really, who is drinking the Kool-Aid?

Immediately before passage and without consultation beyond a small group of legislators (which included the Gorham representative, a Yarmouth High School teacher), the consolidation law was modified to exempt Yarmouth, under the so-called exemption for "efficient, high-performing" schools. This exemption was not taken from any pre-existing definition, but was one that was designed by those who sought a way out of consolidation.

"Efficient, high-performing schools" are determined by applying two factors: having at least three schools identified as "higher performing" in the 2007 report of the Maine Education Research Policy Institute and reporting by individual districts that their 2005-2006 per-pupil expenditures for system administration represent less than 4 percent of all per-pupil expenditures.

Greely High School and Greely Middle School are classified as higher performing schools under the MERPI report. By all measures SAD 51 is an excellent school system but elementary school buildings that do not serve students in both 3rd and 4th grades, which those in SAD 51 do not, were excluded from MERPI report and so did not receive any rating at all. Without a third school rated as higher performing under the MERPI report, SAD 51 was not eligible for this exemption regardless of how high its quality of education was.

Beem also highlights that Yarmouth was exempt because its "administrative costs are low." In adopting the second part of the Legislature's design-based exemption, the Legislature failed to take into account overall expenditures. For example, Yarmouth spent $11,840 per pupil in 2008-2009 while SAD 51 spent $10,339 – a difference of $1,501 per student. If SAD 51 were to spend what Yarmouth did, the SAD 51 school budget would have been $3.3 million higher.

No one disputes Yarmouth's educational excellence. Yarmouth's student enrollment, however, is not expected to grow. Hence, contract commitments alone (without the elimination of program offerings) will result in higher per-pupil spending.

As we move forward, I hope that Yarmouth continues to attract community support for its schools and that Beem remains grateful to his school leadership for warning against consolidation. But please don't criticize those of your neighbors who were looking for a long-term solution that would slow inevitable cost increases and protect quality education.

Betts Gorsky, former chairwoman of the SAD 51 Board of Directors, lives in Cumberland Foreside.