Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen’s practice of allowing students to transfer from one school district to another without a change of residence is drawing opposition from school superintendents around the state.

Some superintendents say the easy transfers are destroying local control and could add significant costs to school systems. The spokesman for the state Department of Education disputes those claims and said the matter boils down to acting in the best interest of the students.

At issue is what are referred to as superintendent agreements.

Under state law, the superintendent of the school district where the student lives and the superintendent of the district the student wants to attend may approve a transfer if they find it is in the student’s best interest. The law allows parents to appeal to the education commissioner if the transfer is denied.

The commissioner’s decision is final and binding, according to Maine law.

Appeals seldom were granted under previous commissioners, according to superintendents interviewed Tuesday. But that has changed dramatically in the past two years.

For the 2011-2012 school year, there were 27 appeals filed with the commissioner by parents who had their transfer requests rejected by their superintendents, according to Maine Department of Education communications director David Connerty-Marin. Of those 27, the commissioner overruled the local superintendents 16 times and upheld the local decisions the other 11 times.

For 2012-2013, there have been 68 appeals filed already, Connerty-Marin said. Bowen has overruled local superintendents 50 times and granted the transfers. Only three appeals have been rejected while another 15 appeals still are under consideration.

There are 1,500 superintendent agreements approved across the state.

Connerty-Marin acknowledged that there has been a change in philosophy from past commissioners on whether to grant transfers at the state level.

“He [Commissioner Stephen Bowen] believes that the parents have their children’s best interest in mind and that is his starting point now,” Connerty-Marin said.

He said before the onus to prove that the transfer was in the best interest of the child was with the parents. Now the commissioner has put the onus on the district to show that a transfer would not be in the best interest of the student.

Sharp criticism

The change at the commissioner’s level has come under sharp criticism from superintendents.

Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lew Collins said his main concern is the loss of local control.

“Maine has been a leader in local control of education. This removes local control,” Collins said.

RSU 13 — which consists of Rockland, Thomaston, St. George, Owls Head, South Thomaston and Cushing — has 15 superintendent agreements. Nine are people moving into the district and six moving out.

The commissioner has overruled one rejected superintendent’s agreement that involves a student who wanted to attend another district.

Collins sent a letter to RSU 13 board members in which he criticized the new policy.

“This new ‘activism’ on the part of the state, if true, will effectively remove all local control from decisions about residency. So, if the parents of a child with extraordinary special needs costing another district $100,000 per year wants to attend RSU 13, the commissioner can, in effect, stick us with the bill for a child that does not reside within our boundaries,” Collins told the board in his letter dated Friday.

Paul Stearns, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association and superintendent of SAD 4 — which consists of Abbott, Cambridge, Parkman, Sangerville and Wellington — echoed the concerns voiced by Collins.

He said the intent of state education laws is for students to attend schools in the communities where they live. He said it is not fair for one district to have to pick up the costs of educating a student from another district for any reason.

“This will create real chaos,” Stearns said.

SAD 40 Superintendent Susan Pratt said there have been three instances in her district this year in which the commissioner has overruled rejected transfer requests. She said in her previous 10 years in central office administration for schools, she can recall only one time when a rejection has been overruled by the state.

SAD 40 consists of Waldoboro, Union, Warren, Washington and Friendship.

Elaine Nutter, superintendent of the Five-Town Community School District which includes Camden, Rockport, Hope, Appleton and Lincolnville, said there has been one rejected transfer to Camden Hills Regional High School overruled by the commissioner this year. The district has 13 approved transfers, with nine coming to Camden Hills from other districts and four attending other districts.

Nutter said it is a financial problem when the commissioner overrules since the Five-Town CSD does not receive state aid, except for reimbursement of debt. When a student from another district comes to her district, local taxpayers are paying the costs.

Stearns said while there have been 68 appeals thus far this year, it likely would increase when parents become aware of the ability to transfer for any reason.

He said, for example, when one district builds a new school, there may be parents in adjoining districts who want their children to go there. The neighboring districts will suffer a loss of students and revenues simply because they have an older school, the association president argued.

Stearns said superintendents act reasonably when there are requests. He said, for example, there was a student whose father and grandfather had taken Reserve Officers Training Corps classes and the student wanted to transfer in his senior year to a school that offered ROTC. He said that was an easy call which he approved.

Connerty-Marin disputed the financial impact on the new policy. He said districts that receive special education students will be reimbursed for that education by the state. The Education Department spokesman also said that the transfer of a student does not dramatically increase the cost to a school system.

“You won’t have to hire another teacher for one student. You won’t have to hire another principal or bus driver. You won’t have to keep the lights on longer,” Connerty-Marin said.

The education spokesman said this should not be disruptive to schools. He said the vast majority of students go to school where they live.

There were about 189,000 public school students in Maine last year, according to the department’s website.

Connerty-Marin said that requests for transfers that may have been sought because it was more convenient for child care purposes based on where a parent worked had not been considered legitimate reasons for approval by superintendents. But the commissioner feels differently. He said if a transfer allows the parent to stay employed at a job, that should be encouraged.

Stearns said, however, he has emailed his local legislators to voice his concerns.

State Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who serves on the Legislature’s Education Committee, said while it is within the legal right of the commissioner to overrule local school districts, he disagrees with the commissioner’s approach. He said the commissioner repeatedly said during meetings across the state that he would respect the education field.

“He is not respecting the field. He is saying he doesn’t care what they think,” Alfond said.

Rep. David Richardson, R-Carmel, who is the House chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, said he was not aware of the change by the commissioner but said he would be checking into it when the committee meets Wednesday to consider gubernatorial appointments.