June 21, 2018
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Bill slows penalties for school districts rejected by partners

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would postpone penalties on schools that were “orphaned” when their towns voted for a school reorganization plan rejected by partner towns is making its way through the Legislature.

The bill, An Act to Provide Additional Time to Certain School Administrative Units to Comply with School Administration Union Reorganization Laws, would delay for one year the penalties assessed under the school consolidation law.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, said Tuesday in a press release that he expects the Legislature will pass the bill.

“The bill essentially buys more time for school districts that tried to consolidate with other districts, but were rejected,” Fitts said.

Fitts noted that SAD 53, which serves Burnham, Detroit and Pittsfield and is in his House district, could lose $180,000 in state aid through the penalty, even though the district towns voted to consolidate with SAD 59. Although SAD 53 towns approved the proposed reorganization plan, voters in the four member towns of SAD 59 — Madison, Starks, Athens and Brighton Plantation — rejected the plan.

“But the way the law is written, SAD 53 now faces a big fine,” Fitts said. “It is profoundly wrong to penalize schools and taxpayers who tried to do the right thing. The law is flawed, and this bill will provide a remedy.”

Under the bill, “orphan districts” would receive an extension until July 1, 2010, to try again to consolidate with the same districts that rejected the plan or with different school districts. To qualify for the extension, the school district must have approved a reorganization plan at a referendum before Jan. 30.

The proposal is one of several bills before the Legislature that propose changes to the reorganization law, including some that have specifically targeted the penalties authorized in the law. For example, Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, has sponsored legislation that would delay penalties on all noncompliant schools for two years. Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, has sponsored a bill that would eliminate penalties for all nonconforming school districts.

Both of those bills, along with Fitts’ proposal, have been referred to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. Legislators also will consider the legislation based on a citizen’s petition that would repeal the consolidation law altogether.

Fitts’ press release cited the Maine Department of Education which identified communities in 16 other school districts around the state that are in the same position as SAD 53 and are facing fines for nonconformance even though their member towns approved a reorganization plan.

Fitts said he has plenty of support for his bill, which was drafted with the support of Education Commissioner Susan Gendron. Even before the Legislature convened in January, Gendron indicated she would support legislation that gave these “orphaned” schools a one-year break on penalties.

Fitts’ bill also has 45 co-sponsors, including Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree and Senate President Elizabeth Mitchell.

“There is a multitude of bipartisan support,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a scenario under which this bill would fail.”

According to the DOE Web site, there are 146 school districts not in compliance with the law. The penalties those districts face under the law total $7,176,957. Also, http://forum.mdischools.net/, a Mount Desert Island Web site which regularly tracks consolidation developments and other education issues, calculates that there are 21 state senators and 45 state representatives who have schools in their legislative districts that are not in compliance and will face penalties.

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