Continuing Consolidation

Posted March 31, 2009, at 10:24 p.m.

Lawmakers today will consider more than a dozen bills to change, delay or eliminate the state’s school administration consolidation law. This may lead some to believe the controversial law should be amended or scrapped. While the law remains problematic in some areas, especially the most rural parts of the state, the economics behind the law have not changed — Maine has more school administration than it can afford. Reducing that administration means more money can be devoted to classroom instruction, where it can improve teaching and learning.

After two large rounds of voting in November and January, 24 reorganization plans and 39 alternative plans have been approved by the voters and commissioners. Alternative plans generally were used by large communities such as Bangor and Portland, or large districts like SAD 1 in the Presque Isle area and SAD 22 in the Hampden area that were large enough that further consolidation was not required. The alternative and approved reorganization plans cover 80 percent of the state’s students.

At the same time, however, 22 plans were rejected by voters, leaving many communities in limbo. While this is not a good outcome, even in the short term, waiving penalties, delaying consolidation requirements or stopping the effort altogether is not a solution.

The Legislature’s Education Committee will hear testimony on 18 bills to change the consolidation law today. The one likely to get the most attention is LD 977, which is a citizen’s initiative to repeal the whole law. If lawmakers don’t pass the bill, it will appear on the November ballot. As a procedural matter, any major changes to the law could trigger a requirement that they, too, appear on the ballot as a competing measure.

For this reason — as well as the fact that consolidation is needed and is moving ahead in much of the state — lawmakers should be wary of rewriting the law.

After years of encouraging voluntary cost-savings and offering financial incentives for consolidation failed to slow the growth in education spending, lawmakers in 2007 approved a reduction in the number of school districts from 290 to no more than 80.

This came after the public, in 2004, voted to require the state to pick up 55 percent of kindergarten through 12th grade costs, with proponents pledging that increased state funding would result in significant reductions in local property taxes.

Since the 2004-05 biennium, state funding to school districts has increased by about $800 million. Total state funding to local school districts will have increased by 37 percent from 2006 to 2009. The consumer price index is projected to rise by 11 percent during that period.

The large increases come at a time when the number of students in Maine is dropping. The number of students in Maine schools has declined by more than 30,000 since the 1980s, while the number of school divisions and administrators has increased. Before consolidation, Maine had 290 school districts and 152 superintendents.

The Department of Education must continue to work with districts, especially those in isolated rural areas, to develop the best consolidation plans. Slowing down, weakening, or worse, abandoning the process is not a responsible solution.

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