June 17, 2018
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Campaign against repeal of school district law starts

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff

Supporters of the state’s school consolidation law have launched their campaign to convince Maine voters to reject a repeal initiative on the ballot in November.

The No On 3 campaign argues that the repeal will be too expensive and that it will curtail the educational gains and savings that have begun to be realized in this first year of reorganization.

“It’s not only the significant savings by reorganizing the 290 school districts in the state; there also have been significant improvements in education,” Newell Augur, the group’s campaign manager and treasurer, said Monday. “Those communities that have rolled up their sleeves and done the hard work have already discovered they are able to offer better programs and better access to those programs than they did before.”

The citizens initiative is Question 3 on the ballot for the Nov. 3 elections and asks voters whether they will repeal the school district consolidation law. The question was placed on the ballot by petition circulated by the Maine Coalition to Save Schools.

The law was passed in 2007 and went into effect with the start of this fiscal year in July. So far, 98 separate school systems have reorganized into 26 regional school units, according to the Maine Department of Education. Another 123 existing districts, mainly in rural areas, rejected consolidation plans in local voting.

Augur said No On 3 is a grass-roots coalition that includes state representatives, superintendents, school board members and teachers who do not want to lose the gains that have been made and the gains to come as reorganization moves forward.

Reorganization will save the state $37.5 million annually, the campaign claims, citing the state’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review, which prepared the preliminary fiscal impact statement on the proposal. Augur said that claim is backed up by a report from the Brookings Institution which indicated that even limited reorgani-zation of K-12 administration in Maine would save about $25 million annually.

“There’s tens of millions of dollars on the table in this reform,” Augur said. “That’s what we’re going to lose unless we vote no.”

The $37.5 million figure, according to the fiscal note on the bill, represents the amount needed to restore funding that was cut from Essential Programs and Services in connection with consolidation.

Augur stressed that there are other savings and educational benefits from reorganization. In Old Orchard Beach, which joined with Dayton and Saco, he said, there has never been a program for gifted and talented students in the high school. In the first year in the new RSU, he said, its has established a program and has increased the number of Advanced Placement courses from one to three.

In RSU 10, Rumford, Mexico and Dixfield each spent between $800,000 and $900,000 on liability insurance premiums, he said. Since reorganization, those premiums have dropped to $1 million, a savings of about 50 percent, he said.

“That’s just one cost center in just the first year,” Augur said.

Augur anticipates additional savings in coming years, noting that this is just the first year of reorganization and that 118 districts still are not in compliance with the law.

“We’re on an 80-yard touchdown drive and we’re in the red zone, and the other side wants to fumble the ball away,” he said. “We want to finish the job. We’re a group of Maine citizens committed to preserving the good reforms that make government more efficient and effective. That’s what school reorganization does.”

Lawrence “Skip” Greenlaw Jr., who heads the Maine Coalition to Save Schools, countered that the consolidation law was ill-conceived and poorly implemented. He said Monday that no one really knows what, if any, savings there may be. Based on the consolidation plans, he said, the coalition has identified only $1.6 million in savings statewide, and said the pending penalties on those communities totals $6.9 million.

“Those penalties were blackmail,” he said. “It’s not a nice word, but that’s what it was — blackmail to force communities to vote for consolidation.”

Many communities rejected the consolidation plans because they saw no savings and, in fact, found that consolidation would have additional costs.

“Maine people examined this, and 135 [towns] voted no,” he said. “They saw that it was going to cost more — mainly from collective bargaining — and that the savings weren’t worth it.”

He also argued that it was unclear whether the $36.5 million that was cut from the education budget as part of the consolidation law would be put back into the budget. Greenlaw pointed out that the Legislature has reduced the education budget and likely will cut more in an effort to balance the budget in the coming months.

“They’re assuming the Legislature is going to give the money back to the communities,” he said. “The Legislature doesn’t have the additional money. How are they going to give it back?”

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