The Case for Consolidation

Posted June 05, 2009, at 7:44 p.m.

Repealing the state’s school district consolidation law is not a solution to the problems that plague the controversial reorganization law or the financial constraints that schools will continue to face.

The reality is that Maine cannot afford the sprawling education system it has. Recognizing this, lawmakers two years ago voted in favor of reducing Maine’s 290 school districts to 80. As expected, the process was difficult and some districts will need more time to complete consolidation.

So far, however, reorganization plans have been approved for 26 regional school units statewide. Another 41 alternative plans have been approved, mostly large school districts, like Bangor, that didn’t have to consolidate with other communities. These approved plans cover 84 percent of all stu-dents in the state.

At the same time, however, 22 plans were rejected by voters earlier this year, leaving many communities in limbo. While this is not a good outcome, stopping consolidation is not a solution because the problem of Maine spending too much on school administration remains. This will be exacerbated by a drop in school funding in 2011, when the state stops receiving federal stimulus funds.

So, it is a disservice to both districts that have consolidated and those that have not for lawmakers to repeal the reorganization law, a path they appear to be taking. The Senate on Thursday voted 19-16 to repeal the consolidation law. A day earlier, the House was two votes short of repeal, a margin it is likely to make up when the measure is reconsidered early next week.

A common sentiment among senators was that the state has not fulfilled its obligation to fund 55 percent of K-12 education as required by a 2004 referendum. A recent analysis by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, no friend of the Baldacci administration, found that when factoring in teacher re-tirement benefits — which cost the state nearly $200 million this year — the state exceeds 55 percent of K-12 funding. “Taxpayers should be fully aware of the truly enormous sums of money being spent by Maine’s schools,” wrote the report’s author, Stephen Bowen — a former teacher.

Further, the same law that called for 55 percent state funding set spending caps for all levels of government. According to the most recent analysis by the State Planning Office, the state and the majority of municipalities and counties were under their limits, but 82 percent of school units exceeded their caps by a total of $132 million, money borne by taxpayers. The percentage of school units exceeding the caps has increased each year since LD 1 went into effect.

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.

Clearly this is not sustainable, which is why Maine must continue to finish the consolidation work and to continue to look for areas to cut costs and reallocate money to classrooms.

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