MACHIAS, Maine — Several school and municipal officials in Washington County gathered earlier this month to discuss the status of school administration consolidation in the county, and their consensus was that the school consolidation law should be overturned by voters — even though their schools stand to lose funding if the law is upheld.
Voters are being asked in referendum Question 3 whether the school consolidation law should be repealed. The law passed in June 2007 called for the state’s 290 school districts to be reorganized into approximately 80 regional school units governed by regional school boards.
The officials who gathered agreed consolidation will never work in rural Washington County.
Washington County has roughly the same population as the city of Bangor, but is spread over an area twice the size of the state of Delaware. Most school districts or unions have rejected consolidation in voting during the past year. Of the 46 towns and cities in Washington County, only Steuben has consolidated with other dis-tricts.
SAD 37, which includes Cherryfield, Columbia, Columbia Falls, Addison, Harrington and Milbridge, voted last fall to consolidate with the Jonesport-Beals Consolidated School District but the plan was defeated by the Jonesport-Beals voters, according to Maine Department of Education Director of Finance and Operations James Rier.
Rier said recently that Deblois and Beddington were part of that consolidation plan but because of the no vote, could not join in.
“Except for Steuben, all the towns in Washington County are noncompliant,” Rier said.
But school officials argue that noncompliant does not mean inefficient.
“We are already doing a great job of operating our schools efficiently,” East Machias Selectman Bucket Davis said earlier this month. “We got out of a school administrative district five years ago and we saved $100,000 for our taxpayers in the very first year.”
Davis said many of Washington County’s schools actually would find it cheaper for their communities to absorb the state penalties rather than consolidate.
East Machias could be hit with a $35,000 penalty, Davis said, so “that means we have saved far, far more than we would be penalized.”
Across the county, Davis said, local boards and school committees work hand-in-hand with local selectmen. “We all work together for the best outcome,” he said.
Rier said that state cuts in revenues — $38 million this year and $36 million next year — will completely overshadow the penalties assessed on noncompliant towns.
“They need to begin focusing on how they will replace these revenues,” Rier said. “I cannot imagine them saving money, while taking both the penalties and the revenue cuts.”
Their biggest fear, the administrators and selectmen said, is that voters in the towns and cities that were large enough not to be affected by consolidation will uphold the law.
“They have absolutely no dog in this fight,” Tony Maker, principal of East Machias’ Elm Street Elementary School, said recently. “This is regional versus local.” Maker said his school is running so efficiently, and providing such a quality education, that enrollment has jumped from 135 pupils 10 years ago to 186 today. This is during a time when across the state, enrollments have been declining.
“When you have local control, parents and students feel more ownership,” Superintendent Scott Porter said.
Porter is an expert on local control and efficiencies. He oversees schools in 11 towns: Machias, Jonesboro, Marshfield, Northfield, Wesley, Roque Bluffs, Whitneyville, East Machias and School Union 134, which consists of Cutler, Whiting and Machiasport.
“Each has its own school committee and payroll,” he said. In addition to consolidating the central office and staff, the individual towns share professional development and educational specialists, and cost share art, physical education and transportation.
DOE spokesman David Connerty-Marin said that what is happening in School Union 102 is inefficient.
“Overseeing 11 schools means at least 11 school committee meetings per month, creating 11 budgets, 11 payrolls. Is that really an efficient use of a superintendent’s time?” he asked earlier this month.
Connerty-Marin also said the administrators’ arguments that consolidation doesn’t work in rural areas is empty.
“SAD 33 and Allagash [in Aroostook County] combined; RSU 10 in the western foothills [Rumford area], a vast geographic area, all came together,” he said.
He also admitted that the bulk of towns and districts not in compliance are in rural areas.
“Washington County is more rural,” he said. “And we often hear the criticism that consolidation is a one-size-fits-all plan.” But, he added, the plan serves districts from 7,000 students in Portland to fewer than 1,200 students. He said Indian and island schools are exempt.
“The law has a tremendous amount of flexibility built in. Some say too much,” Connerty-Marin said.
Maker said, “We don’t want to send the message that we are not looking at efficiencies. We understand the funding formula and it doesn’t work here. Tell us the number [of dollars] they will provide, and we’ll figure it out. We don’t want Augusta doing that to us.”
Davis said each town has its own priorities and preferences and consolidation takes that individualized choice away. In East Machias, for example, the town felt that offering algebra and foreign language, as well as an expanded music program, needed to be part of the curriculum.
“Each town gets to make those decisions,” Porter said. “We feel that this area can be a model for rural Maine.”
Porter said that 215 municipalities across the state voted down consolidation plans, leaving 28 percent that approved their plans.
“If I got a 28 percent in school, that is a failing grade,” Porter said. “Yet the Maine Department of Education continues to claim victory.”
Porter said a bigger slap in the face would come when contract negotiations in the newly formed regional school units take place.
“It will break the bank,” he said, “and have a huge financial impact on this state.”
Connerty-Marin said that is ill-founded criticism.
“No one has started that renegotiation process yet,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean that pay scales will increase overnight. At Mount Desert Island, for example, there is a nine-year salary transition built into their process.”
Schools in the Mount Desert Island area formed an Alternative Organizational Structure, an alternative to the regional school unit model suggested by the state.
East Machias Selectman Will Tuell said it is particularly disheartening that once a town consolidates, it cannot get out of its commitment.
“You can get out of contracts. You can get out of marriage. You can’t get out of this,” he said. “It’s just shady.”
“The state originally had 290 school units and said they wanted 80,” Porter said. “They still have 218. I call that a failure. I just wish someone would admit it.”
Gov. John Baldacci has urged that the school consolidation law be upheld. The Maine Coalition to Save Schools headed by Lawrence “Skip” Greenlaw Jr. of Stonington is working for repeal of the law.