Superintendents are in the bull’s-eye

It has been fashionable for decades to focus on reducing school administrative costs (currently almost 11 percent of school funding) as a tantalizing way to save taxpayer money each year.

Gov. Paul Lepage has revived the discussion, targeting superintendents. LePage proposes that state education funding no longer cover the cost of your local school superintendent. If you want superintendents, he tells the towns, you should pay for them yourselves.

The governor has for years cited the state of Florida. “We have 127 superintendents for 177,000 kids,” he said. “The state of Florida, who ranks number seventh in the best education system in America, has 3 million kids and 64 superintendents.”

He has a point. Look at your school’s list of staff titles. You would think that your community has a General Electric factory. There are superintendents, principals, administrators, assistant principals, curriculum coordinators and more layers of non-teaching positions than veteran educators can ever remember. In retail and service occupations, you are a “customer-facing employee” or not. The nots add to the cost of everything we consume. Our schools are hiring more and more “non-student facing” positions, and these roles cost plenty.

Hancock County has eight superintendents, each supervising expanding staffs and diminished enrollments, while on average, making about double a teacher’s salary. Statewide student enrollment has declined 11.5 percent since 2000 while all costs have increased.

Here on Mount Desert Island, the cost of the district superintendent is shared by seven communities. Because MDI communities already receive so little in the way of state education subsidy now, the governor’s threat holds little sway here but, shouldn’t further sharing be considered by all towns? Do schools share data and consolidate their purchasing power for cafeteria products, supplies, health care, or bus purchases? Are schools (and school boards) bringing their legislators into the schools and showing them how reckless many of the implemented regulations are on the role of teaching – just as they are in business – and with the same stifling affect?

Instead of a complicated system of small jurisdictions, what might the educational landscape look like if administration of the county’s schools were to be designed, fresh, from the ground up?

Undoubtedly, it would look vastly different than today’s configuration. The unpredictable variable, however, is the longstanding tradition of local control, which cannot be discounted in any political process.

Tinkering around the edges of ever-changing education curriculum, implementing competing teaching goals for both engaged and disengaged students, satisfying countless special interests and promising to fulfill arbitrary funding percentages that are unsupported by revenue have created a toxic mix of results. Education, let alone the funding, is now messy and due to get worse. Teacher salaries, which lag behind national averages, will have to increase. Old buildings are going to need new roofs and new heating systems. Computers will go out of date. Come to think of it, who would want to be a superintendent and work through this quagmire?

Committed adults will rise to the challenge. But change is going to be necessary from all quarters. Taxing high earners, as proposed this year by ballot Question 2, is an all-around debacle that will create the opposite effect. Yet money will have to come from property taxes, cost savings and smarter efficiencies between the walls as the cost per student cannot continue to grow. There are far too many competing interests seeking funds that are limited by flat and declining populations.

Superintendents can play a positive role – even under unwanted pressure. Let them come up with the first ideas, even modest savings. Like small students who grow into successful adults, small ideas often create bigger ideas.

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