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I-Team investigates cost of superintendents, plan to consolidate school districts

AUGUSTA (WGME) -- The I-Team investigates superintendent salaries and perks, as the governor proposes to reduce school administrations across the state.

School days may be carefree for students, but decisions about education are intensifying at the statehouse.

"Folks, we don't need more money in education. We need more accountability in education," said Governor Paul LePage.

In his State of the State address, LePage said only 59 cents of each dollar spent on education in Maine actually make it into the classroom. He blames what he calls bloated administrative structures.

"We are the biggest outlier in the country when it comes to superintendents," he said. "We are just out of control."

According to his budget, there are 148 superintendents for 176,000 students. Spending has jumped 27 percent over the past decade, while the student population has declined.

"We've got ten percent fewer students than we did just ten years ago," said Bob Hasson, acting commissioner of the Maine Department of Education. "We have not done any significant right sizing."

CBS 13 examined the contracts of 50 superintendents in southern Maine, finding 47 of them make salaries in the six-figures.

Many get cell phones, some laptops. There's reimbursement for professional development and tuition for an advanced degree. One superintendent gets an all wheel drive vehicle for business and personal use. Another receives $1200 per month for housing.

"It's not a nine to five position," said Steve Bailey, superintendent of AOS 93 and head of the Maine School Superintendents Association. "It's a very early morning until late at night. It's a 260 day a year position. Technology is our friend, but also you're on the clock basically 24/7."

While the governor claims Maine has 148 superintendents, bBiley puts the number around 126.

"In ten years, we've reduced the number of full time positions by 26," said Bailey.

The LePage administration wants to reduce that figure even more and shift the savings into the classroom. Their solution is to provide incentives for voluntary regionalization.

Hasson said it's a different approach than the consolidation forced under the previous governor.

"What we know about local control in Maine and what we know about the direction the state is going in, is that it needs to be voluntary," said Hasson. "It needs to be incentivized and it needs to be locally developed."

Under the governor's proposal, the state will no longer pay for local administrations, instead providing funds for regional education service agencies, or ESA's, that school districts can contract with for administrative services.

Local communities would get to decide what kind of administration they want and be responsible for funding it.

"Basically the question comes up, 'Who's gonna do the work?' And, 'How will the work get done?' And then also, 'Who do you go see if something goes wrong and you want an answer?'" said Bailey.

Bailey said it would create new challenges. Maine is a big state, so he said sprawling districts could mean much longer bus rides for kids. He also questions whether families would feel disconnected from their district.

"I don't think it's the right expenditure to be going after, I really don't," said Bailey.

State Department of Education data reveals "system administration" was the only expenditure to decrease over the past decade. It dropped four percent, compared to special ed instruction which rose 46 percent, and student and staff support which climbed by 73 percent.

When asked if superintendents are the right expenditure to target, Hasson said, "Good question. I think there's many opportunities. I think transportation is an opportunity to look at that differently. I think there's been examples of special education."

Money aside, Bailey worries about the loss of local leadership, which he said builds trust and rallies support within the community.

"The unintentional consequences that would happen, you know, I am very cautiously concerned about that," Bailey said.

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