Superintendents Criticize Education Commissioner's Student Transfer Philosophy

Article excerpt

Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen's practice of allowing students to transfer from one school district to another without a change of residence is drawing opposition from school superintendents around the state.

Some superintendents say the easy transfers are destroying local control and could add significant costs to school systems. The spokesman for the state Department of Education disputes those claims and said the matter boils down to acting in the best interest of the students.

At issue is what are referred to as superintendent agreements.

Under state law, the superintendent of the school district where the student lives and the superintendent of the district the student wants to attend may approve a transfer if they find it is in the student's best interest. The law allows parents to appeal to the education commissioner if the transfer is denied.

The commissioner's decision is final and binding, according to Maine law.

Appeals seldom were granted under previous commissioners, according to superintendents interviewed Tuesday. But that has changed dramatically in the past two years.

For the 2011-2012 school year, there were 27 appeals filed with the commissioner by parents who had their transfer requests rejected by their superintendents, according to Maine Department of Education communications director David Connerty-Marin. Of those 27, the commissioner overruled the local superintendents 16 times and upheld the local decisions the other 11 times.

For 2012-2013, there have been 68 appeals filed already, Connerty- Marin said. Bowen has overruled local superintendents 50 times and granted the transfers. Only three appeals have been rejected while another 15 appeals still are under consideration.

There are 1,500 superintendent agreements approved across the state.

Connerty-Marin acknowledged that there has been a change in philosophy from past commissioners on whether to grant transfers at the state level.

"He [Commissioner Stephen Bowen] believes that the parents have their children's best interest in mind and that is his starting point now," Connerty-Marin said.

He said before the onus to prove that the transfer was in the best interest of the child was with the parents. Now the commissioner has put the onus on the district to show that a transfer would not be in the best interest of the student.

Sharp criticism

The change at the commissioner's level has come under sharp criticism from superintendents.

Regional School Unit 13 Superintendent Lew Collins said his main concern is the loss of local control.

"Maine has been a leader in local control of education. This removes local control," Collins said.

RSU 13 -- which consists of Rockland, Thomaston, St. George, Owls Head, South Thomaston and Cushing -- has 15 superintendent agreements. Nine are people moving into the district and six moving out.

The commissioner has overruled one rejected superintendent's agreement that involves a student who wanted to attend another district.

Collins sent a letter to RSU 13 board members in which he criticized the new policy.

"This new 'activism' on the part of the state, if true, will effectively remove all local control from decisions about residency. So, if the parents of a child with extraordinary special needs costing another district $100,000 per year wants to attend RSU 13, the commissioner can, in effect, stick us with the bill for a child that does not reside within our boundaries," Collins told the board in his letter dated Friday.

Paul Stearns, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association and superintendent of SAD 4 -- which consists of Abbott, Cambridge, Parkman, Sangerville and Wellington -- echoed the concerns voiced by Collins.

He said the intent of state education laws is for students to attend schools in the communities where they live. He said it is not fair for one district to have to pick up the costs of educating a student from another district for any reason. …