No on Question 3

Posted Oct. 20, 2009, at 5:33 p.m.

Do you want to repeal the 2007 law on school district consolidation and restore the laws previously in effect?

Simply put, Maine has more school administration than it can afford. The state’s consolidation effort has been heavy-handed and met with strong resistance in some areas. This, however, is not a reason to abandon the needed effort to reduce the number of school districts in the state. A no vote on Question 3 will allow those districts that have consolidated to move forward, while lawmakers can turn their attention to rewriting the troublesome portions of the 2007 reorganization law.

Opponents of school consolidation are right that the effort has fallen short of its goals. The idea was to reduce the number of school districts in the state from 290 to 80 so that less could be spent on administration and more money devoted to classrooms. State funding for school district administration was also halved as part of the push.

There are still too many districts in the state, in part because the Department of Education relaxed its rules to allow smaller districts and granted some districts permission to continue to stand alone. Some communities, especially in rural areas, have rejected consolidation plans. These communities educate about 12 percent of the state’s students.

Failure to live up to expectations is not a reason to abandon this effort, which will only become more necessary as the number of students in the state and funding for education declines. Rather than repeal the law, districts that have had a difficult time consolidating should be given help. Attempts to do this through legislation were put on hold because of the repeal effort. Lawmakers can focus on targeted fixes in January.

For example, supporters of the repeal want communities to be able to withdraw from a consolidated unit if it is not working. This is reasonable, and such a mechanism should be written in to the law.

As for wanting consolidation to be voluntary, communities have had decades to work together to save money. There has been little to show for this work, in part because more money has been forthcoming from Augusta, a trend that will come to an end in the next state budget.

Since the 2004-05 biennium, state funding to school districts has increased by about $800 million. The large increases come at a time when the number of students in Maine is dropping. The number of students in Maine schools has declined by more than 30,000 since the 1980s, while the number of school divisions and administrators has increased.

“We can’t keep paying for so much bureaucracy,” says Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce. “It’s much too expensive and it doesn’t help our kids.”

That’s why Maine must finish the consolidation work and continue to look for areas to cut costs and reallocate money to classrooms.

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