School districts won’t be penalized

Posted June 19, 2009, at 8:05 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The more than 100 school districts in Maine that have yet to reorganize will not be penalized this year for their failure to comply with a 2007 state mandate.

Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill Friday to delay the financial penalties against schools that have not restructured or consolidated with nearby towns to save money. But the governor also signed an executive order making clear that the penalties were waived “for the sole purpose of enabling them to come into compliance.”

“Our intention has never been to punish school districts,” Baldacci said in a statement. “What we want is a more efficient and affordable system that puts available resources to work for students instead of paying for unnecessary administration.”

Approved by the Legislature in 2007, the controversial school consolidation mandate aimed to reduce the number of school administrative districts from 290 to 80. The law stipulates that newly formed regional school units, or RSUs, should have at least 2,500 students, although state officials can approve exceptions.

School districts encompassing about 88 percent of the K-12 students in Maine complied with the law. But another 125 school districts — located primarily in small, rural communities — have not reorganized. In many cases, local voters rejected consolidation proposals put forward by reorganization committees.

Under the original law, those school districts faced a combined $5.1 million in penalties in the form of withheld state aid for education. Penalties ranged from a few thousand dollars at the smallest districts to several hundred thousand dollars for larger school systems.

The bill signed by the governor, LD 285, provides a one-year reprieve from the reduced state aid.

Rep. James Schatz, the bill’s sponsor, said he was pleased to hear the news. Schatz, D-Blue Hill, said he hopes the bill will encourage people to work together.

“He obviously felt it was the right thing to do, and indeed it was,” Schatz said.

Baldacci held onto the bill for the full 10 days allowed under the constitution after legislative passage. In his statement, the governor called the current trend of decreasing enrollment yet increasing numbers of administrators unsustainable.

“We will continue to support those districts that have not complied with the law and help them transition into more sustainable administrative structures,” Baldacci said. “To that end, I have directed Education Commissioner Sue Gendron to continue efforts to facilitate administrative reorganization among the minority of districts that have not complied and to consider ways to improve the current law.”

Gendron will consult with schools about the reasons for the delays and report to the governor by Jan. 1 as to whether the current law offers schools sufficient flexibility to comply.

A referendum question to repeal the school consolidation law will appear on November’s ballot statewide. A bill to repeal the law failed in the Legislature this year, ensuring the issue will go to voters this fall.

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