Media Archive

Old study weighs school consolidation costs

Article from Bangor Daily News, Monday, April 12, 2004

By Ruth-Ellen Cohen
of the NEWS Staff

ORONO A 1957 law intended to improve academic opportunity and reduce spending by consolidating Maine schools instead resulted in an increase in the cost of education, a University of Maine professor said Friday.By 1980, more than 20 years after passage of the Sinclair Act, both the number of administrators and the average per pupil expenditures had increased, even accounting for inflation, said Gordon Donaldson, professor of education.

"The Sinclair Act may have worked in some ways, but we don't know what those are," Donaldson told the Small Maine High School Coalition which met on the UM campus. "We do know it raised costs and reduced community and parental involvement.

"And there's no evidence it increased quality."

Citing statistics that he said haven't been issued before, Donaldson pointed out that between 1940 and 1960, the average per pupil cost rose almost 90 percent, from $934 to $1,767, adjusted for inflation.

By 1980, however, a span of 20 years, per pupil spending increased to $3,908, or more than doubled.

The statistics were compiled by graduate students he taught as part of a history of education class, the professor said in an interview after his presentation.

There's no way of telling what education costs would have looked like without the law, Donaldson acknowledged, "But we can say that the rate of expenditures per pupil increased a lot faster than it had been."

Jean Gulliver, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, which has been encouraging schools to consider consolidation and regionalization, said she wasn't familiar with the data. She said that "we have some schools that went together under the Sinclair Act, and for the most part have stayed together, so to some degree, some people have found it to be a reasonable system."

The Sinclair Act changed the educational landscape in Maine by offering incentives for towns to form school administrative districts and close tiny high schools seen as economically inefficient and educationally inadequate. The rationale for the law, which saw the number of school districts grow from 139 in 1961 to 178 in 1980, is similar to the one touted today, Donaldson said.

"The argument is that we want consolidation to save on administrative costs, but that's not what happened after the state's huge investment in consolidation [in 1957]," the professor said.

In the aftermath of the Sinclair Act, the number of superintendents rose more than 17 percent, according to Donaldson. In 1942 there were 123 superintendents, compared to 119 in 1961. By 1980, that number had risen to 140.

The state closed many small schools and "poured a lot of money" into building large, modern ones, Donaldson said. "With bigger units came more administrative costs."

Before the law, schools had no real business offices and there were no such positions as assistant superintendents, he said.

"We ended up reinvesting in a new level of middle administrators," Donaldson said.

Concerned about the "potential demise" of small schools, the Maine Small High School Coalition is a group of schools, school districts and individuals working together since 2003 in the belief that small high schools are vital educational institutions for their students, faculties, community and state.

One of the coalition's members, Danny Michaud, Union 104 (Eastport area) superintendent, said Friday that the most recent consolidation in which Rumford became part of SAD 43 (Mexico area) in 1991 "isn't a marriage made in heaven."

Michaud, who served as superintendent in that district 10 years ago, said administrative, support staff and maintenance costs all have increased.

The state board doesn't consider consolidation the answer for everyone, Gulliver said. Each community should analyze its enrollment and tax revenue projections, as well as its cost of doing business, and should decide for itself how best to provide a quality education, she said.

NOTE - This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the TRC Alliance Team.