If the state’s school consolidation law is a “tough love” approach to fiscal responsibility, how should the defeat of 14 of the 18 consolidation votes on Tuesday be understood?
It’s a dangerous exercise to try to divine why a vote went the way it did. But the defeat of so many local consolidation efforts begs for some explanation. This explanation is especially warranted, given that local taxpayers probably will face increases when state penalties are assessed for failing to consolidate.
To date, 22 regional consolidation efforts have failed, while 24 have been approved. Such a low approval rate, barely more than half, calls for a change in strategy on the part of the state Department of Education.
One of the reasons consolidation plans were defeated is likely lingering anger about the concept. Why should the state force reorganization of local education, voters may have wondered, given the state’s failure to live up to its statutory obligation to provide 55 percent of education funding? This defiance, seeing the state as the enemy at the gates, is understandable, but ultimately it is both foolish and futile — unless voters are willing to turn their noses up at hundreds of thousands of dollars in state subsidies.
Another likely motivation for voting against consolidation is the size of the regional unit being proposed. The RSU proposed for the Brewer area included 10 towns. It was defeated. So was the plan to form an alternative school system linking the Allagash and Fort Kent areas, which would have meant a large geographic area. The Orono-Veazie-Glenburn plan, covering a smaller area, won approval. Yet the exception to the rule is that consolidation was defeated in SAD 28 in Camden and Rockport and the Lincolnville area, where five towns already use the same high school.
Still another explanation is that plans were flawed. Voters may have been open to consolidation, but disliked the plan that was created in their region.
And there is the faith factor. Well-informed voters knew that in some cases, costs might go up initially after consolidation. But they may have lacked trust in pronouncements from district officials that in a few years, significant savings would be achieved.
In all likelihood, individual regions failed to approve consolidation for individual reasons. Those should not be dismissed or over-simplified. Rather, the department should continue to provide information where it was lacking, and encouragement and technical help where it was needed, and creativity to craft new plans where geography didn’t support consolidation.
At the same time, the state must be firm in its tough-love stance. Brewer Superintendent Dan Lee told a reporter that work could continue toward finding a way to consolidate, but that “it would be really nice if we didn’t get penalized” with a loss of funding. To waive such penalties essentially punishes districts that succeeded in crafting plans that won approval.
The work for a new kind of school system must continue. And its success should not be measured by the number of approved regional districts. Voters are certainly able to choose to go it alone — if they are willing to pay the price.