For more than two years, school district consolidation has been a contentious issue in Maine.
Opponents argue that it has been an ill-conceived, hastily put together and poorly implemented law that has not achieved its goals. Proponents maintain that it represents much-needed reform and is an effective step toward reducing the cost of education in Maine.
Question 3 on the Nov. 3 ballot gives voters a chance to weigh those opposing views and decide whether to repeal the law. The question asks: “Do you want to repeal the 2007 law on school district consolidation and restore the laws previously in effect?”
The law, enacted in 2007, attempted to reduce the number of school districts in Maine from 290 to 80, but as of July 2009, there were still 218 districts remaining in the state.
Voters in more than 100 districts, largely in rural areas, rejected reorganization plans despite the penalty they faced through the loss of state education subsidies.
Lawrence “Skip” Greenlaw is chairman of the Maine Coalition to Save Schools, which initiated the repeal effort. While reorganization may work for some school districts, Greenlaw said, others should not be forced into mergers that don’t make sense or produce the savings the state projects. Also, he said, they should not be penalized — to the tune of $5 million statewide — for rejecting consolidation.
The law is too rigid to work in Maine’s varied districts, according to Gordon Donaldson, a professor of education at the University of Maine and a coalition member. There is no mechanism in the law for a town or school to withdraw from a reorganized district if it recognized that it was not working for them, Donaldson said. And the heavy-handed approach by the state, he said, discounted voluntary cooperation among districts as an alternative to mandated consolidation.
“The state was not willing to be flexible on anything,” Donaldson said.
According to opponents of repeal, however, the law was a needed measure. It targeted the high number of school districts in the state and their hefty administrative costs, they say. It passed because legislators recognized that the state could not sustain that level of spending, according to state Rep. Emily Ann Cain, D-Orono, a member of the No on 3 campaign, which opposes the repeal effort.
The law, Cain said, provides a way for districts “to work together in a better way and to find savings in a more sustainable way than before.”
The reorganization, which went into effect in July, is creating both financial and educational benefits, benefits that will be lost if the law is repealed, according to No on 3 campaign chairman Newell Augur.
The savings and cost estimates for consolidation also have been a bone of contention.
The coalition has argued that reorganization has posted just $1.6 million in identified savings in the 26 reorganized districts, far below projections. Those districts have been faced with one-time startup costs and some have seen unanticipated cost shifts that have resulted in increased property taxes, the coalition says. Voters in a few municipalities have voted to withdraw from the newly created districts, even though the law does not include an escape clause.
Offsetting any savings, opponents of consolidation say, will be cost increases as each district develops a unified or single employment contract among its employees. Those costs, estimated at a total of $18 million statewide during the next several years, would offset any savings in most communities, Greenlaw predicted.
While the No on 3 campaign acknowledged that there will be costs involved in developing those contracts, Augur stressed the bargaining process also could find savings in other areas that would offset those increases.
Although the department has not yet compiled statewide figures, Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said that districts already are reporting savings and that they expect savings to increase by the end of the year.
In one district alone, savings on insurance premiums totaled $600,000, and other districts have reported similar decreases, Augur said. Those savings will continue to grow as the districts continue to operate, and, if the law is left in place, as more districts consolidate. The savings will be lost if the law is repealed, he said.
Coalition members have argued that savings could have been achieved through voluntary local cooperative agreements if that had been allowed under the law.
Repeal of the law would not dismantle the new school districts, Greenlaw said. He has argued that a relatively simple legislative language change would allow a regional school union or alternative organizational structure, known as an RSU or an AOS, to become an SAD or school union.
Gendron agreed that legislative changes would be needed if the law were repealed since the new districts would have no legal authority to exist. But the process would not be simple, she said. For example, she said, the Legislature would have to deal with specific legal actions taken to create the new districts, including the citizen votes required to join a district and the transfer of property to the new school districts.
Likewise, the Legislature also will need to address the $36.5 million that was cut from the state education budget in connection with the consolidation law. No on 3 has argued, backed by the state Office of Fiscal and Program Review, that that money would have to be added back into the budget if the law were repealed. That would remain an ongoing expense, and those savings would be lost, according to Augur.
The coalition has argued, however, that those cuts were a mechanism to balance the budget at the time. They did not represent real savings, Greenlaw said, but were, in fact a cut in state subsidy that shifted costs to local schools. He said the commissioner already has indicated that there is a straightforward method to reinstate those cuts in the budget.
Gendron said the Legislature could put those cuts back on the books for one year, but that those costs would remain an issue because repeal would reinstate previous funding mandates.
“They could rebook it in a different way, but the funding law would revert to its original intent,” Gendron said. “They could fix it for the year, but it would remain a long-term systematic obligation after the first year.”