Schools await fate of penalties bill

Posted June 17, 2009, at 10:20 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — School districts throughout Maine are anxiously waiting to see what Gov. John Baldacci does with a bill that would suspend the financial penalties against communities that did not reorganize.

The bill, LD 285, would grant a one-year waiver to school districts deemed out of compliance with the reorganization or consolidation mandate passed by the state in 2007. That law aims to reduce the number of school districts from 290 to 80 as part of an effort to reduce duplication and save money.

Baldacci, whose administration spearheaded the consolidation effort, has not indicated whether he will sign or veto the bill. Baldacci spokeswoman Joy Leach said Wednesday that the governor will decide by week’s end.

More than two-thirds of both the House and Senate voted in support of the emergency legislation, however, which if repeated would enable the Legislature to override a gubernatorial veto.

Bill sponsor Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, said he has not received any indication as to what the governor will do, but he is hoping for the best. Schatz, a vocal critic of the state’s reorganization mandate, said that many consolidation proposals failed to win voter support through no fault of the school districts and the volunteer reorganization committees.

“We worked very hard to try to work with what was given to us,” said Schatz. Among the six communities in the Blue Hill area that were part of a reorganization proposal, two towns voted in support and four voted against consolidation.

More than 120 school units statewide have not complied with the mandate to date, although some are working on alternative proposals. The districts that voted against consolidation or did not develop plans would see their state aid reduced by more than $5.1 million under the current law.

Hermon schools, for instance, would lose nearly $153,000 this coming year if the penalties move forward. Patricia Duran, superintendent of Hermon schools, said the town budget approved last week includes additional funding to replace the money. The town would carry over the money until next year if the penalties are waived, she said.

Duran sent an e-mail to Baldacci this week urging him to sign the law, arguing she does not feel that communities that put forth a good faith effort but failed should be penalized. Communities understand that changes need to be made to help the state and towns save money, but many residents felt reorganization had been thrust upon them, she said.

“I think people are very willing to work toward that end,” Duran said on Wednesday. “I believe the message has been sent and well-received that we need to be fiscally responsible.”

The withheld revenues from penalties were supposed to flow to schools that did reorganize, but Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said few districts are counting on the money. In addition to the potential waiver, lawmakers moved to set aside until later this year any revenue from the penalties, if they are imposed.

Other bills that would have repealed the school consolidation mandate failed to pass after the House and Senate deadlocked on the issue. Instead, voters will get a chance to weigh in on the issue this November through a ballot question seeking to repeal the law.

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