BUCKSPORT, Maine — With the proposal to repeal the state’s school consolidation law now dead in the Legislature, the group that initiated the repeal petition plans to work during the summer to develop a campaign strategy to rally support for overturning the law at the polls in November.
“We’ll be putting a group of people together to plan a strategy that will be implemented on September 1,” said Lawrence “Skip” Greenlaw, chairman of the Maine Coalition to Save Schools, the group that collected 61,193 signatures on the citizen-initiated petition to repeal the school consolidation law passed in 2007.
“We intend to work aggressively to tell the real story about consolidation, and that’s certainly not what the administration promotes it to be,” Greenlaw said Monday.
The House and Senate split on the question of repealing the school district reorganization law, which will send the issue of repeal to voters. The question is expected to appear on the ballot in November.
Gov. John Baldacci has promised to actively work to defeat the repeal effort.
While the work of developing a strategy to promote repeal has not begun yet, Greenlaw said much of the effort would focus on education. He said the group likely will target larger, urban areas this fall, those areas where the school districts are large enough so that they did not have to merge with another district in order to meet the requirements of the law, he said. Residents in those communities, he said, are largely unaware of the impact of consolidation in smaller, more rural areas, many of which have rejected reorganization plans for their communities.
“There’s a good part of the state that doesn’t know much about [consolidation] because they haven’t had to deal with it,” Greenlaw said. “We want to reach those people.”
Greenlaw renewed his criticism that the law has not produced the $36 million in savings that the administration had promised. Although state education officials have said that reorganized districts are finding unanticipated savings as they reorganize, the total projected savings statewide has been calculated at about $1.6 million. Greenlaw predicted that those projected savings would be wiped out when the costs of collective bargaining to equalize salaries in merged districts are eventually figured in.
Many communities, he said, rejected consolidation plans because they realized that consolidating would cost more than it would save.
The law was designed to reduce the number of school districts statewide from 290 to 80. But more than 120 school units, many in rural areas, have not complied with the law, many of them because voters rejected the reorganization plan developed by regional planning committees, despite the penalty of reduced state subsidy included in the law.
The Legislature recently adopted — and the governor signed — a measure to postpone those penalties for one year. In a statement issued Sunday, Greenlaw praised the governor for signing the legislation,
“It was the right gesture at a time when everyone is scrambling to keep their local taxes at a minimum because of the recession,” he said.
His praise was short-lived, however, as he criticized the governor’s statement that the penalties were not a punishment.
“Our intention has never been to punish school districts,” the governor said as he signed the measure. “What we want is a more efficient and affordable system that puts available resources to work for students instead of paying for unnecessary administration.”
Greenlaw took issue with that statement.
“Maine people know without question that the penalty for not consolidating was imposed to force school districts to consolidate,” he said. “It was blackmail, pure and simple — you play the game the way we want you to or you pay a penalty.”
David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, recently defended the school reorganization process, which he said is working in those new regional school units that will officially begin operating on July 1.
Connerty-Marin said reorganization was necessary, more so given the current economic climate.
“In fiscal year 2011 — that’s 13 months from now — education funding will drop by $55 million,” he said earlier this month.