The Sinclair Act of 1957 altered the face of education in Maine by offering incentives for towns to form school administrative districts and to shutter tiny high schools seen as economically inefficient and educationally inadequate.
Within a dozen years of the act’s passage, there were 72 SADs covering 55 percent of the state’s municipalities.
Now, Gov. Angus King and Commissioner of Education J. Duke Albanese are re-examining the idea of using the kind of financial incentives contained in the Sinclair Act to encourage further the “regionalization” of schools and school districts.
The commissioner is quick to make that distinction between “regionalization” and consolidation because the mention of closing a school, especially a local elementary school in a rural town, can be like striking a spark in dry tinder.
“We don’t see this as closing schools,” Albanese said. “This is more about thinking about relationships of wider school districts.”
Albanese said towns not currently in SADs could join together to form new ones, or SADs could meld into even larger districts. “In Maine we still have 286 school units, so there is still an opportunity to band together,” Albanese said.
With decreasing enrollments, the challenge of implementing new educational standards and increasng costs, further cooperation can “stretch a dollar,” Albanese said.
The governor is looking for savings in areas not directly tied to learning, the commissioner said. The economies could enable schools and districts to broaden their curriculums.
At the moment “this is a broad idea,” Albanese said. “We’re still working on the particulars.”
The governor declined to be interviewed for this story.
Two elements of the Sinclair Act that could merit resurrection, Albanese said, are having the state provide “a premium” on top of state aid to schools that join together, and giving these districts preference in school construction financing.
But these incentives would not be open-ended, he said. Rather, the governor is contemplating legislation that would open “a window of opportunity” about two years wide.
Until now, King has sought to encourage, coax, cajole and induce consolidation. For example, he has praised the ECO 2000 purchasing consortium in northern Aroostook County school districts as a paradigm of pragmatic business acumen applied to education. Buying in bulk and sharing central office work have been his themes the past few years.
Looking at a map that shows the types of school units across the state, the counties with few SADs include Washington, Hancock, Lincoln and Sagadahoc.
Harvey Kelley Jr. is superintendent of School Union 96, which straddles the Hancock-Washington county line in the Sullivan area.
He said the potential for consolidation without closing schools is out there in the Maine educational landscape. There are clusters of towns with small schools that could benefit from consolidation, he said, noting a body of research that shows there are both upper and lower limits to the size of effective schools.
However, there are things working against consolidation in eastern Maine, he said. “There’s a lot of water, and road routes are a lot lengthier than they seem on a map,” Kelley said. “From Lubec you can see Eastport but it takes a while to drive there.”
Long inlets of the ocean that separate fingers of land like Gouldsboro Point and Corea from the Schoodic Peninsula split his union. Some of his students already spend 50 minutes on a bus each morning getting to school.
Still, the sixtowns Kelley oversees work together on staff and curriculum development, he said. And as they revamp their curriculum they are purchasing textbooks that will be used throughout the union.
In 1957 when the Sinclair Act became law, “some places were eager to join together, some thought it was a communist plot,” said John Skehan, a former superintendent of SAD 22 (Hampden area) and professor emeritus of education at the University of Maine.
To encourage the coalescing of school districts, lawmakers incorporated both carrots and sticks into the Sinclair Act.
The first carrot was a 10 percent bonus on state school aid to districts that formed SADs for a period of five years. This was financed by a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax.
The second incentive, “and perhaps the biggest one,” Skehan said, was that SADs became eligible for state construction aid. Prior to the act, state money for local school construction was confined to units with 750 students or more in grades nine through 12.
“This was a big incentive because the baby boom was under way and towns had inadequate schools,” Skehan said.
To be able to form an SAD, the district had to have at least 300 students in grades nine through 12. This minimum number prevented some “natural groupings” of schools, he said.
Another factor that inhibited consolidation was that until the late 1960s, the only way to split costs was based on property values, Skehan said. For example, the disparity in property value per pupil in Veazie with its power plant and Orono with its inordinate amount of tax-exempt property discouraged the towns from forming an SAD. Today, state law allows towns to apportion the costs in any manner they see fit.
When it comes to trying to form SADs, Skehan said there are four factors that can sink the effort.
The first is strife over splitting the cost.
The second is the threat or the attempt to shut an elementary school. This was the reason Grand Isle withdrew from SAD 24 (Van Buren area), Skehan said.
The third is picking a location for a high school. A squabble in the former SAD 73 (Deer Isle, Stonington, Sedgwick and Brooklin) on whether to build the high school on the island or the mainland scuttled the whole district, according to Skehan.
Lastly, the formation of SADs can founder on geography when small towns are scattered far apart, he added.
A 1969 report by the State Board of Education hailed the first dozen years of school consolidation. It noted that it cost local and state taxpayers 32 percent more per year in schools enrolling fewer than 100 students “than it costs for the education of pupils enrolled in larger, more efficient school systems.”
“Consolidation has resulted in the closing of many high-cost, meager-program, small secondary schools since 1957,” the report proclaimed.