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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Trimming the fat or
cutting out the heart?

Snazzy headline, eh? Permit me the hyperbole and an opportunity to break-up the sports-obsession for a bit, whilst I notch a measure of back self-scratchery for a moment …

The Rockland Courier-Gazette, of which I am a subscriber, published
this story last week about Governor Baldacci's proposal to pare the State's bloated district level administration bureaucracy as a means of cutting state spending.

Anyway, I got a furrow in my brow and submitted a letter to the editor, which the Courier was gracious enough to publish
here. The letter follows below, but first …

The Courier has since followed up with this
lead editorial and this authored column by Editor and reporter of the original story Stephen Betts. Both pieces more plainly addressed the guts of the Governor's proposal and Mr. Betts' recalcitrance toward the plan than a non-critical eye might have detected from the first go-round.

A bit of background on the proposal and the whatnot: The Rockland Free Press provides a compilation of the press releases
here. The Portland Press Herald provided many stories, of which one lies here. And, here lies a Lewiston Sun Journal's overview story, mixed with a bit of analysis.

The Portland Press Herald reported Sunday that Two Other Consolidation Plans are brewing in the Legislature. The Bangor Daily News provided this editorial on the Re-redistricting here, and this opinion column reflected on previous experience with public resistance to school consolidation. Also of note, syndicated statehouse reporter Victoria Wallack reports the same here. The story notes, of the two plans:
One calls for using the 26 districts referenced in Baldacci’s proposal — currently the state’s vocational/technical school regions — as planning districts, where locals can come together and propose what school administrative functions should be consolidated.

The other calls for collapsing the current 290 districts, with their 290 school committees and 152 superintendents, into slightly fewer than 65 districts, with 3,000 to 4,000 students each. Districts currently about that size would be left alone.
Here are one, two, and three weekend Press Herald opinion pieces on the topic, the last of which being Saturday's lead editorial.

But all this sort of gives away the story I tried to provide to Courier readers who might have been confused by reading that only superintendents had worthy opinions on the Governor's plan. Long story short, here was my letter to the Courier:

To the editor:

I eagerly read your Jan. 9 lead story, focusing on Gov. Baldacci's plan to consolidate Maine's 152 school districts into 26. Yet, I found the story's narrow scope troubling. You quoted nobody but area superintendents and school board chairs. In the first major debate over taxes and public spending since the Taxpayer Bill of Rights failed, readers require a far broader view of the debate.

Any school administration cuts that result will surely impact the folks you quoted. But what about the other obvious stakeholders? Where were the voices of teachers? Students? Other taxpayers?

You quoted SAD 50 Superintendent Judy Harvey's feeling that "it just seems too extreme" to consolidate Maine's 152 school districts into 26.

There is a stunner.

Ms. Harvey's job stands to be one of the first eliminated. It's no doubt she finds it "too extreme" to give-up her $105,000 salary and then compete to head-up one of the newly consolidated school districts.

What about the purported benefits of the plan, or reasons it was generated? The governor's proposal tracks the findings of three 2006 studies. The Maine Children's Alliance, the Maine Board of Education, and the Brookings Institute each explored ways Maine can trim taxes, while maintaining programs that protect cherished resources.

All three studies reached the same conclusion: Maine pays too many school district-level administrators too much money, pays its teachers too little and taxes its citizens too much.

The Brookings report, "Charting Maine's Future," spelled-out how Maine policymakers can pare administration costs without hurting student achievement. The report is available free at

Maine citizens generally tout their high per-student payout (higher than all but 10 states) and similarly high-ranked 1:11 teacher-to-student ratio. But how proud are we to pay our teachers salaries so poorly that the average ranks 35th among states? Or how we pay one administrator per 11 underpaid teachers, the ninth slimmest ratio in the nation?

The Brookings report mused that, "Maine is at least as much “Administrationland” as “Vacationland,” given the large number of especially state and school district administrative personnel that seem to populate the state's expensive bureaucracies."

Now, would you expect a superintendent to happily agree with this conclusion? How about three of them?

The governor announced in January that, "The Brookings study has given us not just a blueprint to improve our economy, but a way to lift the extensive pessimism that permeates this state."

Yet, I read nothing about Brookings' research in The Courier's story. I read nothing from teachers, students, parents or their neighbors about how it's about time to more wisely fund education. Instead, I read only about superintendents who want to keep their jobs and their budgets.

The Courier-Gazette regularly honors its duty to describe in good faith how deeply state decisions impact our lives. The risk of a half-told story is that it feeds pessimism, like that which the governor claims his plan will help abate. Strive to breed optimism among your readers by consistently providing the broadest possible perspective on our most challenging policy issues.



Blogger weasel said...

Nice work. The old "business as usual" and "it'll never work" attitudes drive me nuts (along with the idea that after 12 years living, working, and paying taxes in Maine my opinion is worth less than that of someone whose ancestors lacked the gumption to travel beyond the Piscataqua Bridge).

What surprises me in the general reaction (or lack of) to the Brookings Report is that nobody has mentioned that its authors were "from away". That's usually enough to shut down debate among the snarling classes from Fort Kent to Kittery.

4:10 PM


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