Mainers going to the polls Nov. 3 should vote Yes on Question 3 to repeal the school consolidation law. The law has not worked. It is unfair. It is costing more than it is saving. And once a town votes to join an RSU, it cannot leave even if it has good reasons.
The governor’s goal was to reduce 290 districts to 80 by July 1 of this year. But 218 districts remain. Only 26 new consolidated districts have been formed. And only 26 percent of Maine children are now attending schools in consolidated districts — not the 85 percent the governor claims. Maine voters rejected consolidation in more than 125 districts encompassing 200 communities, despite the threat of financial penalties. Clearly, this law is not working.
Why are Mainers choosing not to consolidate?
The law is not fair to all Maine children and communities. Towns in rural Maine have been the target while more urban areas were not required to consolidate. Sixty-five districts, representing 55 percent of the state’s enrollment, were not forced to consolidate because of size, location or other special dispensations granted by the Department of Education. Another 126 got no exemption and face $5 million in penalties next year for exercising their rights at the ballot box to reject the consolidation mandate.
The law has not saved any money; it has cost money. Mandatory consolidation already has cost the state an estimated $4 million to enforce. Local educators and residents spent untold hours and dollars to study and plan. New districts are discovering unexpected costs, including the need for more middle-level administration.
The law requires that teacher contracts be merged. The impact of this leveling is hundreds of thousands in additional salary costs per district. And some communities in new districts are finding their taxes going up, rather than down. In RSU 5, residents in Pownal are seeing their taxes increase by 25 percent and in Durham by 19 percent, while Freeport’s taxes are going down. In RSU 12, Alna residents are seeing their tax bills go up by 33 percent. Five of the 11 towns in RSU 24 (Ellsworth) have seen increases in local taxes for schools.
The law is too rigid. It imprisons communities in RSUs. Once they vote to join, towns have no legal way to get out of a merged district, even if the arrangement is costing them more and not helping students. The law does not recognize other forms of cooperation among school districts as a legal alternative to mandated consolidation — cooperatives that could actually save money, regardless of a district’s size.
The solution? Voters need to vote Yes on 3 to repeal school consolidation on Nov. 3, and let districts explore true cost-saving measures while maintaining local control over their schools. The 26 new districts that have merged can stay merged if they want, with a simple law change that allows them to become a school administrative district or a union. Consolidation has had 2½ years to work. The verdict is in: It does not work. It’s time to trust Maine residents to find better solutions.
Gordon Donaldson is a professor of education at the University of Maine.