|School districts are up against a tight deadline to decide if they want to be part of the state’s experiment with regional management centers and worried if they don’t their schools will leave up to $140 per student on the table in the form of increased state aid.
Applications are due to the Department of Education on Nov. 30 for preliminary proposals for regional sharing of services in at least two categories outlined in the Maine School Management and Leadership Centers (SMLC) enabling legislation. The SMLC language was tucked into the massive and contentious biennial budget that finally passed on July 4.
The centers are modeled after the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services or BOCES system in New York State.
Maine’s version of BOCES started out as a preliminary recommendation of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on education funding and outcomes. The commission issued a draft report in January of 2017 with the promise that regional cooperatives and 15 other recommendations would be studied in depth. The commission was supposed to continue meeting throughout this year and make final recommendations, with detailed cost analyses, in early 2018.
Instead the regional cooperatives were part of the budget, which was passed after a three-day government shutdown, and few legislators even knew they were voting on them. The Blue Ribbon Commission has not met since its preliminary report was released and no cost analysis was done on the SMLCs.
The budget did include sizeable incentives for districts to join an SMLC. The largest is an estimated $60 to $140 per student that districts will be eligible for only if they submit a preliminary application. (Those figures are based on a $200 allocation that will vary depending on what percentage of state share districts receive. The SMLC law says the minimum is 30 percent, presumably even for minimum receivers of state subsidy, and a maximum is 70 percent.) The other “incentive” is actually a penalty, where districts that don’t join will lose $46 per student in their system administration allocation next year and $94 the following year.
Some caution the governor’s push to have school districts join education cooperatives modeled after the BOCES system could lead to unintended consequences, because it is using money as an upfront incentive to join an untested system, which has received mixed reviews back in New York.
An audit done by the New York State Comptrollers Office on management and central office services found that in 60 percent of the cases studied, the BOCES costs were “56 percent higher, on average, than districts’ costs for delivering the same services”.
The New York State Comptrollers Audit essentially found that the incentive aid there encouraged bad behavior.
“The availability of BOCES Aid does not incentivize BOCES to minimize service costs, or districts to demand less expensive choices,” the Comptroller report said. “Instead, BOCES aid shifts the burden of BOCES extra costs from local taxpayers to State taxpayers.”
Request to extend deadline
MSMA Executive Director Steven Bailey has made an official request to DOE Commissioner Robert Hasson to extend the Nov. 30 deadline and put off implementation of the management centers until 2019-2020 to give districts more time to consider their implications – both positive and negative.
Bailey also raised concerns about what he described as “regionalization through forced choice” that penalizes those that don’t participate and increases state share for those that do – a move that presumably reduces available General Purpose Aid for non-participants.
Districts have shown interest in coming together around special services, including special education; professional development; transportation; and collaborating on the hiring of substitute teachers.
But the law makes no allowances for existing cooperatives, which can’t be counted unless they turn into SMLCs and follow all the rules. The state’s 11 Alternative Organizational Structures, which serve 91 communities and epitomize the goals of the SMLCs – even using the same inter-local agreement structure – have to convert or face penalties. So do the existing school-based regional programs around special education or the regional cooperatives in places like Western Maine, Aroostook and Penobscot Counties.
What is more concerning is that if the SMLCs aren’t effective, getting out feels nearly impossible. A district that wants to withdraw must be able to show there will be “no increase in costs or decrease in student programs” for the withdrawing unit or the remaining members. If there is a desire to dissolve a regional cooperative all together, member districts have to join another center or prove there is no increase in costs or decrease in programs for any of the members.
How BOCES came to Maine
BOCES began operating in New York State in 1950, initially around vocational education and special education. In the 1980s they added administrative and back-office services, regional computer and data centers and online learning hubs. In the 2000s, they became centers for standards, curriculum and assessment support and professional development.
In October of 2016, the DOE invited James Kadamus, the former Deputy Commissioner of K-12 Education in New York State, who supervised BOCES superintendents, to give an overview on BOCES to the Blue Ribbon Commission.
It is not clear how much money, if any, BOCES has saved school districts or taxpayers in New York, which has 700 school districts, some of them very small. BOCES services aren’t necessarily less expensive than those provided by an individual district, and the fact districts get incentive aid to spend money on BOCES services can influence the buying decision.
“BOCES in New York wasn’t about saving money but enhancing the quality of services,” Kadamus said in a recent phone interview. The original intention was to make sure smaller, more rural districts could offer the same quality of services as their larger counterparts.
When asked how he felt about Maine offering penalties and incentives to get districts to join SMLCs, Kadamus said it is important the proposed regional services meet a need.
“From a public policy standpoint, I’m an incentive person,” he said. “I like offering incentives, but there needs to be a well-defined purpose for having a shared service.”