A bill sponsored by Rep. Stacey Fitts, R-Pittsfield, to postpone penalties for certain towns that voted in favor of consolidation but were unable to implement the plan because the plan was rejected by partner towns is making its way through the Legislature.
In promoting the bill, Rep. Fitts was quoted saying, “The bill essentially buys more time for school districts that tried to consolidate with other districts, but were rejected.” To my knowledge, this is the first time we hear that a lack of time to formulate acceptable reorganization plans was the major cause for the rejection of some plans. Based on a review of the contents of the plans that were rejected, all plans were completed to the satisfaction of the commissioner of education. Plans were not rejected on the basis of incompleteness, as the proposed bill might insinuate.
Rep. Fitts also 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.” I fail to see what remedy a one-year reprieve on penalties will have on a law that is flawed. Most plans were rejected on that premise — that the law is flawed.
School units that rejected the proposed reorganization plans did the right thing for their schools and taxpayers because the plans were based on a flawed law, which prevented plans from being formulated where all prospective members would benefit. In most cases, absorbing the proposed penalty is less detrimental than becom-ing a part of the proposed reorganization unit. To add insult to injury, some plans were approved as a result of the threat of a penalty and not on the merits of the plan.
Adding further insult to injury, the funds withheld as penalties will be redistributed to those units that voted to approve reorganization. Some units will undergo very little or no change at all in transitioning into their newly reorganized unit, but they will benefit financially as recipients of penalty funds. The commissioner has yet to release the method of how these funds will be redistributed, but it stands to reason that there will be some relationship to the education funding formula.
That being the case, the penalty funds will be redistributed from the less wealthy counties to the more wealthy counties. For example, 29 school units in Aroostook County will be assessed more than $1.2 million in penalties, and only three will benefit from the redistribution. In Piscataquis County, 11 school units will be as-sessed over a half-million dollars in penalties and none will benefit from the redistribution. On the other hand, only two school units in Kennebec County will be assessed penalties while 16 units benefit from the redistribution, and no school units in Cumberland County will be assessed penalties, while four will benefit from the redistribution of penalty funds.
Rep. Fitts and the co-sponsors of his bill, LD 635, are correct in admitting the school reorganization law is flawed. The law is flawed and full of double standards. It has exempted eight island schools based on geographic isolation, but it has ignored similar or more isolated inland schools. The law permitted 41 school units to meet its requirement with an Alternative Plan because apparently bigger is more cost-efficient (yet only two of the 41 are at or below the Essential Programs and Services level of funding), but it ignored 30 of the smaller school units who are at or below the EPS level of funding. It will penalize 24 of these efficient small school units for not reorganizing and redistribute penalty funds to schools that have reorganized, including some whose reorganized unit exceed the EPS level of funding by as much as 57 percent.
I agree with Rep. Fitts that the law is flawed. It is totally unacceptable that only 94 school units out of the 231 school units (40.69 percent) that were required to vote on reorganization plans approved their plans. It is also totally unacceptable that 24 small efficient schools will be penalized for adhering to the people’s mandate to control education costs.
Dan Bechard was co-chairperson of the St. John Valley Regional Planning Committee. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.