While the rejection of school consolidation plans in some communities is troubling, the move toward centralized — and hence less expensive — administration is moving forward. Last week, 12 of 16 consolidation plans were approved. In those communities where they were rejected, alternatives are already being sought.
This is not to suggest that consolidation doesn’t have problems, but the widespread approval shows that the message of spending less on administration so that more can go to classroom education is being heard.
If there is a pattern in Nov. 4’s votes, it is that reorganization is a harder sell in rural areas. The merger of SAD 34 and SAD 56 was strongly supported by voters in Belfast and Searsport, but rejected by residents of Morrill and Frankfort, for example. Overall, combining the two districts was approved by a nearly 1,400-vote margin.
Reorganization plans were also approved for Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Dayton; Etna and Newport, Mount Desert Island and Trenton; and Freeport, Pownal and Durham.
Plans were rejected for the St. John Valley; SAD 1 and SAD 32 in Presque Isle and Ashland; and southern Aroostook County, including Houlton. In southern Maine, Falmouth soundly rejected its plan, while its partner, SAD 51 in Cumberland, overwhelmingly supported it.
The question school district officials must now sort out is why these plans were rejected. Did voters object to consolidation in general? Did they favor a different arrangement? Different partners?
This is a shortcoming of requiring referendum votes on reorganization plans. While public approval is helpful, rejection leaves many unanswered questions.
It is encouraging that in communities where plans were rejected, work is already underway to find acceptable alternatives. In the St. John Valley, for example, different, smaller partnerships are being considered.
The bottom line is that, because of duplication and inefficiency, school administration in Maine is too expensive. Reducing these costs should free up resources that can be devoted to classroom instruction. This is especially important as school districts are likely to see flat funding from Augusta due to the economic downturn and the governor’s directive that spending be reduced.