At what point can a trainer put away both the carrot and the stick? The Baldacci administration faced this dilemma as it weighed action on a bill to suspend the financial penalties that were an essential component of the landmark school consolidation legislation passed in 2007. He was right to hold off on the stick by signing LD 285, which delays penalties for one year.
The consolidation law has succeeded in encouraging (critics would say coercing) nearly 100 districts to join forces with neighboring school units. The consolidation plans that have been approved account for 88 percent of students in the state. Despite that success rate, 22 consolidation plans were rejected by voters. Those voters may have concluded that they are willing to pay more for education by maintaining school administration that is not commensurate with the size of the student body. And they may also be willing to absorb the cuts in state funding — the penalties that result from failing to consolidate — as the price to pay for autonomy.
But another factor is at play in these communities, which made the governor’s decision on the fate of the penalty waiver bill more difficult. Many residents in communities where consolidation has not been approved may be looking forward to voting in favor of a referendum in November that would repeal the consolidation law. If the referendum carries, the penalties become moot.
If the referendum passes, it will be interesting to see if residents of consolidated school districts work to break apart the recent mergers. It seems unlikely, given the hard work completed, and the likelihood that this hard work revealed the potential for savings.
Granting a one-year penalty waiver to districts that have made and continue to make a good faith effort to consolidate seems like a reasonable accommodation, especially since the governor coupled it with the carrot of additional help from the Department of Education for school districts that are having difficulty consolidating. If the law is not flexible enough for these districts, the commissioner can ask for changes to move all districts toward consolidation. This answers the argument that delaying penalties is unfair to those districts that did the work to merge.
An obstacle to winning voter approval for merger plans may be that some local school officials have not embraced the spirit of the consolidation law; that is, they may doubt consolidation is possible, and so are less than enthusiastic in advocating for it. The state could do more to explain the benefits of consolidation — less money spent on administration so more can go to the classroom.
Whether districts consolidate or not, they face a precipitous drop in school funding in 2011, when the state stops receiving federal stimulus funds that it is now applying to its education aid. That date would make a good final deadline.