Trescott and other area unorganized territory parents who were hanging their hats on a possible legislative remedy to the school choice issue will be disappointed in the votes taken by the legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee members on May 5. Two legislative bills sponsored by Rep. Will Tuell of East Machias, to provide school choice for students living in the unorganized territories and to provide transparency in Education in the Unorganized Territories (EUT) administration, received little support from the committee. The bills sought to address the controversy that erupted last spring about where students living in area unorganized territories attend elementary school. Parents had been shocked when they were told by the state that their children would have to attend the EUT school in Edmunds instead of the other area elementary schools that they had been attending.
At the May 5 work session, Shelley Lane, director of state schools, EUT, presented a "soft proposal" for the EUT to provide a one-time reimbursement to the Elm Street School in East Machias and the Whiting Village School to cover the tuition costs this year for UT students who have been attending those two schools, which had allowed them to stay at their schools at a very low tuition rate. The East Machias school would receive $26,400 and the Whiting school $3,842. Next year the UT students will have to attend the Edmunds Consolidated School unless they receive permission through the alternative placement process, which requires a compelling reason to attend another school.
In response to a question about the cost for grandfathering in all of the students who are now attending other schools, Lane said it would be $1 million.
Bryan Dench, an attorney for the Town of East Machias, said Lane's proposal might address the financial burden that had been addressed by the two schools for one year, but the fundamental problem caused by the Department of Education ordering families to move their children to another school with only four months' notice is not being addressed. He also pointed out that the alternative placement process "doesn't really work," since it is different from the superintendent's agreement process used for students not living in the UT. Those decisions by superintendents can be appealed to the commissioner of education and then to the Maine State Board of Education. However, there is no appeal process under the alternative placement process for UT students. He noted that 19 parents had appealed the decision last year that their children had to attend the Edmunds school, and only about half of the appeals were granted. He argued that a parallel process for further appeal, as with superintendent's agreements, should be set up for UT students. "The financial proposal has merit for the one-year costs, but to put the families back to where they were a year ago is not much of a solution," he stated.
Rep. Roger Fuller of Lewiston agreed, noting that the underlying issue of local control versus state control would not be resolved through the one-time payment.
Senator Joyce Maker of Calais, a member of the committee, argued that families should at least be given another year before school choice is taken away from them. "We're not talking about money. We're talking about kids and their families."
But Senator Rebecca Millett of South Portland stated, "We've bent over backwards" for the affected families in Washington County and added that parents should have considered the lack of school choice when they decided to live in the UT. Senator Maker responded that until this past year parents living in the UT in Washington County had been allowed to send their children to whatever school they wanted to attend for the past 50 years. "Parents were told they had school choice when they decided to live in those districts."
The committee then voted almost unanimously, with Maker opposed, to give the school choice bill an ought-not-to-pass recommendation. The bill will now be considered by the House and Senate.
Turning the tables
Unorganized territory school administrators tried to turn the tables on those critical of the UT school state administration as being too costly and lacking in transparency, during a public hearing on Rep. Tuell's second bill. That bill was the subject of a public hearing by the legislature's Education Committee on May 1.
Tuell's bill would require that the Department of Education publish academic outcome data for students in the EUT schools; publish budget data for the EUT schools; and require that the Department of Education contract for school administrative services for EUT schools with neighboring school districts. Tuell stated that his bill "is about transparency, ensuring that UT parents, taxpayers and the public as a whole have access to the same information in the same format as folks around the state have for schools in their area." He said data about the cost per student at the EUT schools "proved elusive. Academic data was also impossible to tease out. What was discovered, deep in the bowels of the state's open government website, was the fact that the state spends upwards of $300,000 in salary and benefits on five UT employees serving 900 UT students across the state." He argued that local school districts could administer the UT schools under a state contract.
Attorney Dench noted that the tuition cost was $20,000 for unorganized territory schools but less than $6,000 for other schools. He argued that the state should allow the UT students to enroll in other schools, which would cost less.
However, both Suzan Beaudoin, deputy commissioner of the Department of Education, and Shelley Lane opposed the bill. Lane pointed out that the academic testing data for students in the EUT schools is published; that the EUT schools do not receive any state subsidy funding, unlike other public schools in the state, and their budget is vetted through the legislature's Taxation Committee annually, so it would be "futile and expensive to switch budget data publication methods." She also stated that administrative services provided by the EUT offer "a crucial mechanism for financial oversight, allowing the state to remain fiscally responsible for UT taxpayer funds while continuing to provide quality educations to students facing unique geographical challenges."
She noted that two prior task forces, in 1996 and 2010, had reviewed the administrative practices used to oversee the state schools and concluded that the EUT "was performing in a fiscally responsible way, was providing a quality education and performing much needed administrative services for UT students."
Noting that Tuell's proposal would turn oversight authority over to local school districts across the state, she pointed out numerous examples where the EUT office had discovered erroneous and perhaps fraudulent invoices by local school districts. In one case, the EUT paid a town for six months and then received an invoice from the local school district requesting payment of nearly $100,000. The investigation by the EUT office revealed that the town had been using the funds and not paying the school. She included several other examples and stated, "UT funds are too appealing, the need for education funding too prevalent and the opportunity for fraud too great to be left without appropriate oversight. The EUT administration provides that oversight."
Barbara Pineau, special education director for the state in charge of the unorganized territories, made a similar point, stating, "Sadly, many school districts are very comfortable spending EUT money to cover costs that are not related to EUT students or are for services these students should be receiving but are not." She said that often UT students attending a non-EUT school are not getting the services outlined in their individualized education programs. "One consistency with this issue, however, is that the EUT is always billed for the service, despite the fact that it is not delivered." Among the numerous examples she gave were times when it was determined that a student needed to attend a special day treatment program with transportation provided. Weeks later the parent would reach out to Pineau to tell her that the student was not transported at all and had not been in school as a result, but the EUT was billed by the school district for tuition.
At the May 5 work session, the committee voted unanimously to give the bill an ought-not-to-pass recommendation.