PORTLAND — Under a new state law, school districts are being encouraged to form regional service centers designed to consolidate administrative services with the hope of saving money and better serving students.
In some cases that may mean districts would share a superintendent, along with other services, such as special education, transportation and technology.
The Portland Public Schools has submitted an application to the Maine Department of Education to form a regional service center with the Westbrook and South Portland school departments.
Under this scenario, each district would retain its own superintendent, but the three would collaborate on some English language learner services, some transportation services and staff recruitment, according to Xavier Botana, superintendent of the Portland schools.
It is a conceptual plan only, Botana said this week, and the three districts have until April 15, 2018, to submit a final plan.
The application so far “simply indicates that the three districts are exploring these areas of partnership,” Botana said. “We may partner on all or just some of these areas, depending on whether it makes sense for each of us and our respective communities.”
Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia said the district has looked at collaboration and cost-sharing efforts in the past and is excited to be looking into this program.
“I think it’s something worth exploring,” he said. “We’re already doing a lot of what the spirit of the project entails.”
Under English language learner services, Botana said the focus would be on professional development for educators and better integration with adult education programs and both community and social services.
In terms of transportation, the idea is to consolidate maintenance of school department vehicles, create unified dispatching, and share bus driver recruitment and training costs, Botana said.
In the area of staff recruitment, he said the three districts would work together to better attract and prepare “culturally and linguistically diverse educators … that match the cultural and linguistic diversity of our students.”
As a way to encourage regional service centers among school districts, the Legislature passed a state budget this past spring that gradually reduces state funding for school administration.
The biennial budget will provide $92 per pupil for administration in the 2018 school year and $47 per pupil in 2019, down from the current $135 per pupil allowance, according to the Department of Education.
If school districts become part of a formal regional services center, they would receive an additional $46 per pupil in 2018 and an additional $94 in 2019.
Starting in 2020, the commissioner of education would set the per-pupil amount allowed.
The Department of Education is calling regional centers a chance “to improve educational services and increase student achievement through creative regional partnerships,” according to its website.
But the Maine School Superintendents Association argues that “school districts (across the state) have long collaborated with neighboring districts and joined regional cooperatives in order to provide better services to children and help control costs,” according to a memo distributed to its members.
Lancia said Westbrook has done collaborations with other districts for years.
“It’s natural to look at regionalization because we know it works and it’s good for students,” he said.
In addition to considering the collaboration with Portland and South Portland, Westbrook is looking at the same project with the Sebago Alliance (Westbrook, Gorham, Scarborough, Bonny Eagle, and Windham/Raymond) and South Portland. Lancia said both collaborations are exploratory right now and Westbrook hasn’t committed to anything.
The superintendents association also argues that the financial penalties should be eliminated because they “create winners and losers … by taking money from those districts that do not form regional service centers and distributing it to those systems that do.”
In addition, the superintendents’ group would like to see the implementation of the new law delayed by a year so “interested school systems (have time to) create comprehensive inter-local agreements that assure the centers are in the best interest of the districts and students they serve.”
Lancia agreed with this because he is wary of “hasty planning” and is concerned by the timeline.
The memo sent out by the Maine School Superintendents Association also states that school districts should easily be able to get out of or dissolve a regional service center if it’s not working as intended.
Botana said this week he’s unsure how the possible creation of a regional service center with South Portland and Westbrook would impact the operational budgets of the three school districts going forward.
“The impact for budgeting is unclear at this time,” he said. “We are probably going to develop a budget assuming (there’s a regional center) and one assuming (no center) was created.”
Lancia said Westbrook will also be considering the impact on the budget.
“We want to see if this would save us any money or if we’d have to spend more,” he said. “We have to look at all the benefits and risks, but ultimately we want to do what’s best for students.”
Botana added all three districts support the one-year delay in implementation, and if that happens local budgets would be impacted.
Right now, he said, “It’s hard to visualize (exactly) where the inefficiencies will come from. Any efficiencies will be used to expand and strengthen programming in (the specified) areas or be re-directed to instructional supports for students.”