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Maine’s Governor LePage Uses Bad Data to Make Wrongheaded Recommendation

October 5, 2016

Roughly 35 years ago I developed my first budget as a school superintendent in SAD #44 in Maine… and shortly thereafter read the first letter criticizing my budget proposal. The letter, from an irascible resident of the smallest town in the district, complained that the budget included way too much “administrative fat” for the “bloated bureaucracy” that managed the 7 schools housing 1400 students. Upon reading the letter, I turned to my administrative assistant and half-time bookkeeper and asked rhetorically how we could get any thinner. During the budget process I had presented the Board with an Education Research Service (ERS) analysis of our cost/pupil for administration, which was among the smallest in the State and nationally, and provided as many analytics as possible supporting the additional funding needed to move the district forward— a practice I continued for 29 years thereafter. But that year I learned that facts don’t matter to some voters: the only thing that counts to them is the fact that there taxes are going up and there only means of controlling it is to vote NO for anything that adds to the bottom line.

Based on a recent article in the Portland Press Herald, had Paul LePage resided in one of the five towns that comprised SAD #44 he would have undoubtedly sided with the cantankerous anti-spending faction in town and, facts notwithstanding, sought a cut of the “bloated bureaucracy”. Mr. LePage, who never once supported spending on public schools, is calling for a reduction in administrative spending in the State and seeking a reduction in the number of school districts through a top-down consolidation in order to accomplish that end. The Press Herald outlines Mr. LePage’s “case” in its introductory paragraphs:

Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that Maine has too many school superintendents and he plans to pressure school districts to consolidate administrations in the two-year state budget he will propose to the Legislature in early 2017.

“The issue is not the money in education, the issue is how the money in education is being spent,” LePage said during a talk show on WVOM radio in Bangor. LePage reiterated his dissatisfaction with the number of public school superintendents in Maine, comparing the state with Florida.

“We have 127 superintendents for 177,000 kids,” LePage said. “The state of Florida, who ranks number seventh in the best education system in America, has 3 million kids and 64 superintendents. That’s where the problem is. We are spending the money on the administration of our schools and not in the classrooms.”

The governor went on to say he believed teachers and students in Maine “are the two victims of our school system.” He said the state’s teachers union and the superintendents association “are the two winners.”

It’s not clear how LePage could force school systems to combine administrative functions. He did not offer any details of the plan. His staff did not respond to a question about the source of his information on Maine’s or Florida’s educational performance and ranking.

Mr. LePage, whose voting base is analogous to that of Donald Trump, is clearly disinterested in the facts. The Maine School Board Association and Maine Superintendent’s Association both noted that administrative costs have declined over the past few years and constitute less than 1% of the educational spending in the state. And his assertion that Maine ranked poorly in “educational performance” as compared to Florida defies all rankings issued over the past several years. When you believe any government spending is bad and any spending on administrative fat cats is wasteful the facts can often be an inconvenient truth. That was true 35 years ago and it is true today….

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