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Analysts: School funding crisis an opportunity for change

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Analysts: School funding crisis an opportunity for change

SOUTH PORTLAND — Maine has too many school districts, too many administrators, too few students per teacher and too many students identified for special education.

Those were just some of the problems behind the current funding crisis for public education identified by attorney and education policy expert David T. Flanagan at the Portland Regional Chamber's Policy Soundings: Public Education in Crisis.

Flanagan, the former Central Maine Power Co. president, who helped investigate Hurricane Katrina for the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee, was part of a panel discussion on Feb. 12 at the Marriott at Sable Oaks in South Portland.

The other panelists were Portland Superintendent of Schools James C. Morse Sr. and Mark Gray, the executive director of the Maine Educational Association, a statewide teacher's union.

The discussion, sponsored by the Portland Regional Chamber the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service, came as school districts are facing a $35 million mid-year cut in funding from the state. Districts expect a combined cut of $92 million next year.

Flanagan used a quote by Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, to set the tone of the presentation: "A financial crisis is a terrible thing to waste."

The panelists agreed the current crisis should be viewed as an opportunity for Maine's schools to make the structural changes necessary to become more effective and efficient.

"We have lost our way," Morse said. "We lack a statewide vision and commitment to what works. ... You can't change the system without shaking it to the core."

Flanagan said school districts need to look at the the metrics used to identify special-education students and deliver services. He said a recent comprehensive study of Portland schools, which identified $2.5 million in cuts, should be emulated across the state.

Morse said new programs are often implemented because they “sound good” and are maintained because they make students and teachers happy, rather than based on verifiable data about their effectiveness.

"We have a mentality in public education that we're in the happiness business," he said. "We're not in the happiness business. We're in the business of giving kids the skill sets in order to be successful leaders for Maine and the future."

Flanagan said the state needs to continue streamlining its school administration by expanding its efforts towards school consolidation.

Until the consolidation effort was launched a few years ago, Flanagan said Maine had been headed in the opposite direction over the last 20 years. While enrollment has dropped by 16 percent over that time, he said expenditures have increased by 450 percent.

Maine has the 10th highest per-pupil cost in the nation, he said, annually spending $13,500 per student compared with the national average of $10,000.

Meanwhile, Flanagan said student performance is getting worse.

"The number of students is down; educational attainment is slipping; but spending is up – way up,” Flanagan said. “That is exactly the wrong way to be going."

Flanagan also said Maine has some of the lowest student-teacher ratios (11.3 to 1) in the nation (15.5 to 1).

While more teachers per student is effective in primary grades, Morse said it has less of an impact on learning from middle school onward. Instead, more resources should be invested in early childhood education to lay the foundation for future learning, he said.

As the number of teachers has declined over the two decades, Flanagan said the number of administrator and non-teaching positions have increased.

Gray said that, prior to moving to Maine, his hometown school district in Montgomery County, Md., had 250,000 students, but only one superintendent and one School Board.

"I never knew, nor really ever cared, who the superintendent was ... nor did I worry about who the School Board member was,” Gray said. “But I knew the principal and I knew the teachers, because that's where we focused our attention.”

Gray said Maine has one of the oldest teaching pools in the nation, partly because of its retirement system, which keeps teachers in the classroom longer than they would like.

“They effectively locked teachers in the classroom until the age of 62,” he said.

Although last week's discussion was the second of four events to discuss issues facing the next governor, the fact that none of the 23 candidates running for governor attended the event did not go unnoticed.

“That's too bad,” Chamber CEO W. Godfrey Wood said, after realizing no candidates were in the audience. “If they were here, they might learn about the challenges that face our municipalities and our state.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext.100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net