AUGUSTA, Maine — House lawmakers narrowly rejected a bill to repeal Maine’s controversial school-district consolidation law Wednesday but approved a separate measure granting communities a one-year reprieve from penalties if they fail to reorganize.
By voting against the repeal, the House effectively opted to place the issue in voters’ hands during a statewide referendum on school-district consolidation this November. A citizen initiative to repeal the law already has been filed with state election officials.
Both bills now head to the Senate for consideration.
House members voted 72-70 to reject the repeal bill, LD 977, after moderate debate. Some opponents said scrapping the law now would wreak havoc on the dozens of towns that, after months of hard work, worked out a plan to consolidate with other administrative districts.
“It would create a legal quagmire for communities all throughout our state,” said Rep. Patricia Sutherland, D-Chapman, the co-chairwoman of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.
Sutherland and others also argued that voters should ultimately decide the fate of the consolidation law, which Baldacci administration officials spearheaded as a way to increase efficiencies and reduce administrative costs among districts.
But supporters of the repeal bill said they believe lawmakers should step to the plate and knock down a consolidation law that has generated so much controversy and anger.
“This Legislature started this fiasco. This Legislature should finish it,” said Rep. Michael Celli, R-Brewer.
The Maine Department of Education has approved roughly 140 administrative consolidation or reorganization plans to date. But another 125 school districts have been deemed “nonconforming” because local residents voted down consolidation or because the towns simply never submitted proposals to the state.
The 2007 consolidation mandate aimed to reduce the number of school districts statewide from 290 to 80. The law stipulates that newly formed regional school units should have at least 2,500 students, although state education officials can approve exceptions.
Some reorganization or consolidation efforts went smoothly, with little opposition. But some school districts that have reorganized have found any cost savings to be elusive.
Rep. Richard Wagner, D-Lewiston, said that while the state was rushed into consolidation, he didn’t believe it was appropriate to rush out of it either. Other supporters said the state should be looking to repair the consolidation mandate rather than repeal it.
But critics of consolidation said that allowing the matter to go on the ballot will ultimately cost the state and local towns more money.
The 2007 consolidation law allows the state to penalize nonconforming school districts by essentially withholding or reducing state support. More than 100 noncompliant schools are facing financial penalties totaling more than $5 million, with revenue from the penalties distributed to schools that are in compliance.
By a vote of 111-32, however, House members moved to delay those penalties for one year in order to give school districts more time to come into compliance. Penalties range from a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars, depending on the size of the school district.
The school district that includes Jay, for example, is facing a penalty exceeding $200,000 despite the fact that the consolidation plan only fell 17 votes shy of winning in a local referendum. Jay-area representatives said the proposal might have been successful had the state given towns more time to develop plans and educate voters.
Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, pointed out that 185 municipal government bodies have passed resolves or other measures supporting a delay on the imposition of penalties. Burns said the consolidation mandate put many small towns in a position where they would lose financially no matter whether they complied with the mandate or rebuffed it.
Some lawmakers argued it was unfair, however, to change the law after so many individuals labored for months to develop workable consolidation plans that would win support from voters in their towns.
“Do I think consolidation is perfect? Absolutely not,” said Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, D-Portland. “But the rules were set and I don’t think we should change them.”