A penalty is a punishment imposed upon an individual or organization for not following a rule or law. Drive too fast — pay a fine. Grab a facemask — 15 yards. Skip your homework — stay in for recess. Murder someone — life in prison, or worse. We know the drill well.
If you think about it, penalties affect nearly every aspect of our daily lives. They help us make good decisions and lend order to our existence. A fair penalty is one that corrects the undesirable or illegal behavior without presenting unintended consequences when enforced. One student misbehaves and the entire class misses recess — unfair!
The voters of SAD 4 (Abbot, Cambridge, Guilford, Parkman, Sangerville and Wellington) are about to face a situation that is very much unfair. On Jan. 27 they will vote on whether or not to join a regional school unit with six other towns. The dilemma is this: If they vote to join the new RSU there will be significant added expense as union contracts are blended and differences in program offerings are reconciled. If they vote not to join, there will be a penalty imposed by the state. Although the penalty for not joining is less than half of the anticipated cost of reorganizing, it is unfair and does not meet the straight-face test.
As the school reorganization law unfolded in the Legislature, at one point the ball bounced into the court of the Appropriations Committee. This is where the decision was made to penalize towns and school systems that vote against consolidating, regardless of what they spend on education, or what the costs of reorganizing might be. This also is where the decision was made to redistribute these penalty dollars to districts that comply with the law even if those districts already spend far more on education. The undesired behavior actually is rewarded rather than penalized!
The Holy Grail of statistics in public education funding has traditionally been “cost per pupil.” SAD 4’s annual cost per pupil is $7,261. This ranks in the bottom 9.2 percent in the state. Such a modest level of funding has been achieved by closing schools, lowering operational costs and by seeking efficiencies in every aspect of the operation.
Thirty-four school systems were exempt from having to reorganize at all. SAD 4 spends less per pupil than 33 of them. Voters around the state recently approved 12 new school units. SAD 4 spends far less than each of them. The larger systems in each of these new units spend an average of $9,971 per pupil. This is 37 percent higher than SAD 4.
It is evident that any fair penalty for educational spending abuses should be based on spending data in relation to a common standard rather than the size or organizational structure of the unit. In Maine this common standard is defined as the 100 percent level of Essential Programs and Services. It would be simple, but not politically popular, to devise a penalty system based on spending, if one so desired.
As it stands, the consolidation penalty structure is not even related to finance, it is merely a social engineering tool designed to have people “vote the way they are supposed to.” The children, teachers and taxpayers of SAD 4 face “staying in for recess,” even though we have exhibited responsible financial behaviors for years.
Paul A. Stearns is superintendent of schools in SAD 4.