It has been three years since many of Maine’s school districts consolidated to try to save money on administrative costs. As more and more communities consider withdrawing from newly consolidated school districts, a major question has emerged: Did it work?

Some superintendents think consolidation is a godsend. Others say it is a terrible example of state government meddling in local affairs. A legislative committee last week endorsed a bill that would make it easier for towns to dissolve regional school districts.

Whatever the perspective, the school consolidation debate is far from over.

Former Gov. John Baldacci took on school consolidation as one of his major issues. The idea worked off an economies of scale theory: Small school districts cost more to run than large ones, taking needed money from classrooms to pay for unneeded administrators. One superintendent overseeing 2,500 students is cheaper than three superintendents for those same students spread over several districts, the logic went. Consolidating Maine’s then-290 districts into fewer than 80, the former governor said, could cut $36.5 million from the state’s 2008-2009 budget.

The state did not get down to 80 school units as the governor’s proposal was significantly amended before being passed by the Legislature. According to numbers from the Maine Department of Education, there are now 164 school districts, covering 94 percent of the state’s public school student population. There are still 246 school boards, according to Dale Douglass, executive director of the Maine School Management Association.

“Are we close to 80? No,” Douglass said. “But the other thing I think is interesting is the one place where numbers did go down — the number of superintendents. Before consolidation we had 152 superintendents. Today we have 94 full-time and 31 part-time superintendents. That’s a significant number.”

The commissioner of the Maine Department of Education isn’t so sure consolidation has worked.

“I think it is a ‘depends’ issue,” said Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen. “Some are doing fine. Some were shotgun marriages — there’s a lot of regret and people are struggling with them. And some didn’t have to do anything. You created some alternative structures that retained their old school district and share administrative services. It’s hard to say if consolidation had a huge impact because many districts didn’t do much because of it.”

Although the department keeps numbers on how much each school district spends on administrative costs, other factors muddle the budget lines.

For one thing, federal stimulus money was injected and then not replenished in the three years since consolidation started. In the past few years, some districts got less state aid and had to cut administrative costs — unrelated to consolidation. Other districts shifted administrative costs from one budget line to another with no ties to consolidation.

All the while, Maine lost thousands of students, which means districts may have had to cut administrative positions even if they didn’t consolidate. The dropping student enrollments were a big part of the push to consolidate yet are a big reason why it’s difficult to tell if consolidation saved money.

Ask Maine’s 125 superintendents how consolidation worked for their schools and you’ll get about as many different answers.

As of this year, 108 districts have complied with the reorganization law. One hundred and sixty-seven former school units have reorganized into 41 consolidated districts. Of these, 24 formed regional school units, or RSUs, and 17 are alternative organizational structures, or AOSs. Forty-nine districts were large enough and didn’t have to do anything to comply with the law; another 18 were exempt for geographic reasons, mostly island districts.

Fifty-six units are considered nonconforming for not meeting the law’s requirements.

Fearing loss of local control

Local control, especially when it comes to school finances, has continued to be one of the hot topics surrounding consolidation. There already have been talks in many towns of leaving consolidated districts for this reason. Residents in St. George, Veazie, Glenburn, Orono, Wiscasset, Mars Hill, Fort Fairfield and other towns have talked about leaving their districts.

It’s impossible to know how many individual towns and school districts fit into this category because they do not have to file paperwork with the state until very late in the withdrawal process.

But it is clear the numbers are growing.

“There are some municipalities that want to break away. Undoubtedly some people will try to withdraw … but few of the efforts will succeed; it’s a rigorous process,” said Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

The withdrawal process is purposely difficult, he said.

“You don’t want municipalities joining and withdrawing frequently; it’s disruptive, but there might be times when it’s appropriate. There might not be a good match. Withdrawal requires a long process and many votes and many times voters want to stay where they are.”

As of January, districts that consolidated three years ago were able to begin that lengthy withdrawal process. None of those districts that want to split will be able to do so by next school year, according to Connerty-Marin. The process is just too long. The town that wants to leave must get signatures on a precisely worded petition (a group in Glenburn recently had to start over because it didn’t follow the department’s wording on its petition), put the item on a town warrant, have residents vote to go through the process, negotiate with the district at large, make a plan on how to withdraw, put the plan to voters and get a two-thirds majority vote to approve that plan. The state Education Department then has to approve that plan.

Lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would require a majority vote, not two-thirds, from community members to approve a withdrawal plan.

“A lot of times when people rumble about withdrawal, they think they can do it cheaper themselves, but they find they can’t,” Connerty-Marin said. This is because costs and subsidies are driven by student enrollments and valuation of property in the area — those factors don’t change if a town is in a district or not.

“More often than not when people think they’re getting screwed by the district — the reality is they rarely are,” Connerty-Marin said.

Savings tied to compliance

According to the state Education Department, most of the consolidated schools saved money and improved education. By bringing districts together, many schools could have teachers work together on program development and professional development, which has led to better learning environments, according to Connerty-Marin.

“There are lots of districts where the new regional school unit brought together two or more districts and one might have had a great music program and they might have added that to the other one. AP courses, gifted and talented, pre-k added,” said Connerty-Marin. “That’s a lot of what consolidation was about — with limited resources, what resources could be shared more efficiently? We have seen a lot of that.”

For instance, Connerty-Marin said RSU 1 in Bath saved more than $1 million a year by combining operations, which let it add pre-kindergarten, four new programs at its vocation center and expanded world languages and gifted and talented programs.

RSU 10 in Rumford saved more than $800,000 when it brought its offices together and combined special education programs.

RSU 23 in Saco saved $200,000 in administration costs when it consolidated. With that money it added all-day kindergarten and expanded gifted and talented programs.

Bill Webster, former superintendent of the Ellsworth-area district, is a huge proponent of consolidation in Maine. According to him, Regional School District 24 saves about $800,000 every year — out of an approximately $35.5 million budget — because it consolidated.

In his time with the district, Webster was able to save about $90,000 by combining insurance costs among all the schools. He said the RSU saved another $25,000 by having only one audit. The 12 communities started buying school supplies together, at up to a 50 percent discount from what they had been paying. Combined busing saved on gas.

“It was one thing after another,” Webster said. “Every time we turned around there were spots we saved money. As importantly, we provided a better and more consistent educational programming.”

For example, students from Franklin and Gouldsboro now could take many of the same classes as students in Ellsworth — sometimes by videoconferencing.

“Any district that has consolidated in Maine to my knowledge — and I’ve sat around the table with superintendents from lots of regional school units — everyone has saved. The only ones that haven’t saved are the ones that didn’t consolidate,” Webster said.

“All that being said, the one thing consolidation was unable to address, without time, was the political difference and the political boundaries from town to town. One reason why I’m no longer superintendent in RSU 24 is that the time the superintendent in a district like that needs to take on the political issues [is extensive].”

Now Webster works for Lewiston area schools, which he said allows him to devote less time to town politics and more time to education.

“That’s the biggest downfall and not just in Ellsworth,” Webster said. “[Townspeople] don’t want a 12-town board and a district budget vote over those 12 communities. We are used to doing it by municipality and it’s a different mindset.”

Alternative plans

Scott Porter, superintendent of Machias area schools, said his district was hesitant at first but found a compromise that kept local control. To do this, it had to get the consolidation law changed.

To ease into the change, the three previous districts first tried sharing bookkeeping and a superintendent before seriously considering consolidating. After a year of trying it out, it seemed to make sense for the 11 towns involved. But they weren’t willing to have the state lump all of their subsidies together. They didn’t want one large school board and they didn’t want to try to figure out how the money would be dispersed through one budget. So when the consolidation law was adjusted it allowed the 11 towns to form an alternative organizational structure that keeps them all on different budgets with different school boards and different state subsidies.

And consolidating prevented the 11 towns from paying $216,978 in penalty fees to the state.

Porter likes the AOS because it allows each town to be able to follow their own money. There is one AOS school board, but the only thing it monitors is the central office. It doesn’t make decisions about teachers and educational offerings.

The alternative organization structure does mean Porter has to write 11 different budgets and go to 11 town meetings, but he said he doesn’t mind.

“AOS is the ultimate in local control. Every town has its own school committee and pays its own bills,” Porter said.

Some people might disagree with that, like the people around Deer Isle-Stonington who decided not to consolidate.

That school union lost half of its state subsidy because of penalties for not consolidating. But according to Superintendent Robert Webster, they never got much of a subsidy anyway.

“It seems to me it was in their best interest. The formation of a larger AOS would not have saved any substantial amount of money. The amount of subsidy lost in the penalties, you have to balance that in what would have been lost with local control and whether any money would have been saved,” Webster said.

The district paid about $130,000 in lost subsidy out of its $6 million total budget.

“It’s not chump change, but it was not enough so people would sacrifice other things like local control that are important.”

This year the district won’t pay any fees because the Maine Legislature waived consolidation penalties.

Was it worth it?

Dale Douglass, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, which oversees statewide superintendent and school board associations, has been watching how consolidation has played out for the last three years.

“I’m not able with any certainty to tell you that consolidation has been a success or not. You have to examine it with verifiable data about what schools [used to] cost and what they cost now and if people are paying more or less than they are now,” Douglass said.

Because there is no information like this, “I think this is individual based and they’re not easily categorized. I won’t generalize. There are success stories out there and there are elements that people have questions about it.”