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Grassroots Advocates Push to Save Schools in Maine and Mississippi

In energetic campaigns to save local schools, advocacy groups in Maine and Mississippi have been making headlines in the past month. In Maine, Governor John Baldacci’s proposal to consolidate school districts has prompted opposition from organizations and citizens across the state, particularly in rural areas. In Mississippi, grassroots organizing has been instrumental in pushing both lawmakers and Governor Haley Barbour to support substantial increases in school funding.

Consolidation Proposal Sparks Outrage in Maine

Governor Baldacci of Maine touched a nerve among his constituents in January when he, as part of his budget proposal, suggested consolidating Maine’s 290 school districts into 26 regional school districts. Baldacci’s plan, touted as a way to save millions in property taxes, sparked outrage among advocates and educators, particularly those from Maine’s rural communities.

Despite Governor Baldacci’s assurances that Maine citizens would save money and that no schools would be closed, the backlash to his proposal was strong and swift. At town hall-style meetings held across the state, Gov. Baldacci faced stern opposition to his plan from parents and educators. At an open legislative hearing in Augusta on February 5, hundreds of parents, educators and advocates came to speak in opposition to the plan. The people who attended the meeting, as the Morning Sentinel reported, spoke “in many voices but with one consistent message,” and it was hours into the hearing before anyone spoke in favor of the Governor’s proposal.

Opposition to the consolidation proposal comes from across the state, but particularly from Maine’s rural communities. Residents of rural communities – which have been facing declining enrollments and budget cuts – do not believe the Governor’s assurances no schools will be closed. Residents of small communities fear that when large regional districts want to save money, district offices will close rural schools and desires of small communities will be politically overpowered by larger communities in the new “mega-districts.” Closing rural schools, people argued, would mean the death of rural towns, since it would cause people to leave those communities. Roger Berle, chairman of the Maine Islands Coalition, an advocacy group for the interests of island communities in Maine, has said schools are “crucial” to the existence of these communities and any school closings would be disastrous.

A range of other reasons to oppose the governor’s plan were also expressed at the February 5 hearing. One special education teacher said the plan would “devastate” special education by pulling out and segregating special education students from across the large districts. Others were angry that the plan would radically reshape the governance of education almost overnight and leave towns without local control over their schools.

Studies done in a number of states by the Rural Trust show that consolidation does not, in fact, necessarily save money – a fact that lends additional weight to the arguments of those who oppose the governor’s plan.

Despite opposing the governor’s plan, however, many groups agree school districts need to reduce costs in order to lower property taxes and have proposed their own alternatives plans. Both the Maine Children’s Alliance and a coalition of education and civic organizations across the state are proposing alternative plans – likely to be taken up by some Maine lawmakers – that would make it easier for school districts to work together to share services and save money, without necessarily consolidating them. The Maine Children’s Alliance, in a report entitled “A Case for Cooperation,” argues for reducing administrative costs through cooperative reform. The group has also proposed more gradual changes in governance, providing incentives for districts to work together. Other alternatives to the governor’s plan have been proposed by the Maine Small Schools Coalition, an organization that has worked for years to protect the interests of small, rural schools.

Grassroots Successes in Mississippi

School funding advocates are close to a major success in Mississippi, where lawmakers appear likely to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program (MAEP). MAEP, a funding formula passed in 1997, has not been fully funded in any year except 2003. Last year, MAEP was under-funded by $120 million, according to the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

The situation in 2006 looked grim, with Governor Haley Barbour saying it might not be possible to fully fund MAEP in 2007. Furthermore, sessions of the Legislative Budget Committee in Mississippi are generally closed, preventing citizens from knowing what is being debated in the budget process.

However, grassroots advocacy organizations such as Southern Echo and The Parents’ Campaign worked hard to organize public support for full funding of MAEP. As the Rural Trust reported, these groups brought “unprecedented numbers of citizens onto the playing field – crossing traditional race, class, status, and geographic barriers – to impact the budget process in a state that has little history of democratic decision-making or legislative transparency.”

On December 1, House Speaker Bill McCoy opened the budget committee’s session to the public, and in late December Governor Barbour announced that he expected to sign a bill fully funding MAEP in the spring of 2007. On January 11, when the Mississippi House was scheduled to take up the issue of school funding, 500 Mississippians marched from the State Fairgrounds to the Capitol, chanting and rallying for the legislature to fully fund MAEP. Nancy Loome, Executive Director of The Parents’ Campaign and organizer of the rally, told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal that she was “overwhelmed” by the support and amazed at the number of people who had taken off work to drive hours to the state capitol to march. The House passed full funding for MAEP by a vote of 119-1. On February 13, the Senate followed by passing its own version of the bill 52-0. The House and Senate bills are slightly different – the House bill contains $13 million more for at-risk students while the Senate version contains $4 million more for other programs, such as student health programs – and legislative leaders will likely now negotiate a final bill that both houses can pass.

Officials for The Parents’ Campaign noted, however, that fully funding MAEP is only a start. “The truth is, needs in Mississippi schools far exceed what even full funding of the MAEP will provide,” the Campaign’s material says. Mississippi ranks near the bottom among states in both school funding and educational achievement. Improved technology, additional staff and programs, better facilities and better transportation are needed to provide all students the opportunity to learn. If lawmakers do finally fully fund MAEP, however, it will be an enormous step in the right direction – one that could not have happened without the grassroots support of school funding advocates.

Prepared by Matthew Samberg, Februrary 20, 2007