Time for state to repeal rural school consolidation

By Sen. Doug Smith and Reps. Paul Davis and Pete Johnson, Special to the BDN
Posted Feb. 18, 2009, at 8:20 p.m.

We noted with interest the Feb. 6 BDN article by Diana Bowley regarding the rejection of the proposed school consolidation plans in the Piscataquis County area. We would like to add some observations to the debate.

The voters of all of the towns and school districts within Piscataquis County were perplexed by exactly the same difficulty that confronted many legislators when the matter first came before the Legislature in early 2007. The specific difficulty was the inability to identify actual savings to be derived from school consolidation. The governor and his people claimed there would be savings in the millions of dollars, but the facts have proved otherwise.

The word around the State House now is that many people were sold a bill of goods by the governor and his education experts. Only one of the three of us — Sen. Smith — was in the Legislature when this issue came up for discussion and vote. Sen. Smith never received a satisfactory answer to his inquiry about potential savings and voted against the consolidation measure. If all three of us had been serving at the time, all three of us would have opposed it.

The idea of consolidating rural Maine is not a new one to the Baldacci administration. In our opinion, the administration has been attempting various types of consolidation to the detriment of rural Maine for several years. One only needs to study the infamous LD 1, which actually took money from rural school districts and gave it to larger urban districts that have far more assets than the rural districts do.

Another telling piece of evidence is the treatment of our hospitals. Maine owes its hospitals approximately $425 million, including more than $40 million to the so-called critical access hospitals, mostly in rural Maine. For example, the state owes $6 million to our local hospitals — Mayo Memorial in Dover-Foxcroft and C.A. Dean in Greenville. These debts stem from MaineCare services dating back to 2005.

When this school consolidation measure was initially advanced, the governor and his people assured us that the substantial savings would enable municipalities to reduce property taxes. While that was a laudable objective, the sad fact is that consolidation has produced little or no savings. In some school districts, costs have actually risen.

Moreover, the architects of this plan decided that local people had to accept it or face punishment in the form of fines. The mighty state holds a gun to rural Maine and says. “Do as you are told or we will pull the trigger.” This bizarre feature of the law has led some towns to accept the fines because they are smaller than the cost of consolidation. Obviously, these fines will impose greater financial hardship on municipalities that already are struggling due to the recession.

To make matters worse, the governor’s proposed budget for the next biennium — starting July 1 — actually reduces the amount of general purpose aid to local schools from the current budget. Instead of ramping up to 55 percent of the cost of essential programs and services, as promised, the state has retreated further from that goal. We accept that the state’s huge revenue shortfall requires cuts in many programs. But imposing fines on schools that don’t consolidate will aggravate the damage and harm education.

It is now clear that the administration failed to exercise the analysis and due diligence that should have preceded the introduction of this measure. This was a classic example of going off half-cocked. And sadly, there were much better ideas available.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center suggested that Maine adopt administrative service districts. In an ASD, every local school system would be a member and could voluntarily enter into joint undertakings with their regional partners to provide specific goods and services. Those options would have included special education, cooperative purchasing, shared counseling, shared curriculum development, shared payroll services and shared transportation — things that would produce real savings. This outstanding suggestion was ignored.

For the amount of money that has been wasted on the current school consolidation effort, there could have been several million dollars of incentives to help with the planning and implementation of local efforts. This is a proven model elsewhere and would have had strong support from local school officials and many of the legislators that opposed the efforts of the governor and his minions. This could still be done without the threat of local towns being punished for refusing to bow to Augusta.

A people’s referendum to repeal school consolidation will come before the Legislature soon. The Legislature could act to repeal it. Failing that, we suggest that all penalties be removed from the law pending a vote of the people on the question of repeal of the entire school consolidation law. If the repeal occurs, we can then move on to take up other suggestions that will contain costs and improve schools, this time with proper local participation and leadership and without the heavy-handed tactics of the current law.

Sen. Doug Smith lives in Dover-Foxcroft, Rep. Paul Davis lives in Sangerville and Rep. Pete Johnson lives in Greenville.

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/02/18/opinion/time-for-state-to-repeal-rural-school-consolidation/ printed on August 1, 2014