Let’s build on Maine’s strengths when it comes to public education

By Paul Markosian

In Ellsworth, as in many communities in Maine, we see a tension between two groups of citizens. One group, including those living on fixed incomes, opposes any increase in property taxes. The second group wants our local schools to do the best job possible of preparing our students for higher education and for full participation in a 21st century workforce. When the state’s contribution falls short of our needs, we are forced to pit neighbor against neighbor in making painful choices to either raise property taxes or cut teaching positions. During the last budget cycle we chose the latter, which resulted in increased class sizes and a failure to expand foreign language offerings to our middle school students, among other consequences.

As we all know, the Essential Programs and Services model has never been fully funded, despite the referendum passed in 2003 calling for the state to contribute 55 percent of the cost of operating public schools. Many citizens are dumbfounded by this. Dumbfounded. And it gets worse, because since that referendum was passed in 2003, the definition of what constitutes 55 percent has evolved, and costs that were not initially included in the “55 percent” definition have been added. One example of this — a big example — is teacher retirement costs, once borne solely by the state. These costs are now shared at the local level, a shift that has changed the definition of 55 percent and increased the financial burden of local school departments.

The original funding model for Essential Programs and Services was equitable in design. I would like to see us try fully funding rather than making changes to the formula, as the Governor’s budget proposes.

The Governor wants to eliminate system administration costs from the formula. This would shift the fiscal responsibility from a state-local share to a full local responsibility. It is based on faulty assumptions and comparisons. Basically, the Governor is saying that here in Maine we have too many superintendents compared with Florida. How many more? Well, we have 92 full-time and 39 part-time superintendents, for a total of 131, and they serve just under 190,000 students. Florida has 2.7 million students and only 67 superintendents. We’ve got one superintendent for every 1,450 students, while in Florida each superintendent serves over 40,000 students. This comparison makes it seem that we are woefully inefficient compared to the Sunshine State.

But here’s the thing: Florida school districts contain many more layers of management and levels of administration than you will ever see in Maine. Broward County, Fla., for example — a district of approximately 270,000 students — has just one superintendent, but its organizational chart is 17 pages long and lists almost 1,400 administrators, including the following titles: Chief of Staff, Coordinator of Governmental Affairs, Director of Legislative Affairs, Chief School Performance Officer, Director of Leadership Development, Director of School Accountability, Director of Service quality, Director of Coaching and Induction and Strategic Partnerships Development Manager.

Have you ever heard of any of those positions in a Maine school district? And — a more important question — does a mega-district like Broward County’s operate more efficiently than a typical Maine district? A look at the numbers says no. Broward County lists 44 percent of its employees as non-instructional personnel; in Maine that figure is typically 28 percent to 30 percent. What’s more, while fourth-graders in both Maine and Florida score above the national average in mathematics, by eighth grade Florida drops below the national average, with a ranking of 33rd, and Florida’s graduation rate of 77.9 percent puts it at 41st in the nation.

Maine does not excel in everything. By many measures our state lags behind most others. Forbes magazine puts us 49th in terms of business climate. Business Insider ranks us 46th in economic strength. The Kaiser Foundation reports that we are in 40th place in average U.S. income. But when it comes to education, we do a lot with less. We have good outcomes, and we are efficient. Let’s build on our strengths instead of wrecking what we have.

I fully support efforts to achieve cost savings and greater efficiency. In Hancock County, school board members and superintendents from several communities (including Hancock, Lamoine, RSU 24, MDI, Bucksport, Deer Isle, and School Union 93) are in talks to look at ways to collaborate, save money and enhance educational outcomes. We welcome ideas and incentives to help us do this. But, in the spirit of local control — which is so important to so many Mainers, and which is such an integral component of the success of Maine’s public schools — we tend to look askance at efforts to impose these goals in a blunt, heavy-handed way.

One of the Governor’s stated aims is to attract new businesses to the state. We should not forget that one of the best ways to do that is to produce a fully functioning, and fully funded, public education system.

Paul Markosian is vice chairman of the Ellsworth School Board.