Saving Our Small Schools: Is Privatization an Option?

Read the full report | Maine’s small schools are in danger. Though legislators deliberating Governor Baldacci’s school system consolidation proposal could have found other ways to generate administrative savings within and among Maine schools, they instead voted to force existing school units to join large regional school districts. The boards of these large new Regional School Units, which by law will take possession of all the public schools in their districts, will no doubt one day decide that it is too costly to keep open the many small schools under their administration. With the state giving school construction funding preference to those districts that consolidate schools, and with the legislature’s ongoing failure to provide meaning property tax relief, the pressure will mount to replace small community schools with large regional ones, much as was done fifty years ago under the Sinclair Act, when hundreds of schools across the state were closed in the name of consolidation.

Under pressure from small school supporters, state legislators were careful to include language in the new law that makes it difficult to close a school once the Regional School Units are in place. The community in which a school is located could vote to keep a school open despite a vote of the Regional School Unit board to close it, but that community is then required to pay whatever extra expenses are incurred by doing so, as calculated by the commissioner of education. The closure question put to voters  of the town, in fact, must include an estimate of the “additional costs of keeping the school open.”  It is only a matter of time, therefore, before pressure to close small community schools begins to build, brought on by increasing local costs and the lure of state money to build much larger new consolidated schools many miles away.

Either way, Maine’s small communities will have little choice in the matter. Regional School Units are to be governed by new school boards whose composition is determined by population. Small towns currently running their own schools will soon find themselves minority voters, if they have any representation at all, on the much larger boards which will govern the schools they used to call their own. Decisions about how their school is run will no longer be theirs to make.

As bleak as all of this may seem to those with beloved community schools whose future may be in doubt, a reading of existing state law suggests another alternative, which is to turn over their local public school to a private non-profit to operate as an independent school to which area students would be tuitioned. In effect, this approach saves the existing public school through privatization, through the creation of a community-led private school to which all students are welcome.