Repeal of school reform law rejected

Posted Nov. 03, 2009, at 10:14 p.m.

Maine voters have rejected a move to repeal the state’s school district consolidation law — and they did so in convincing fashion.

With 87 percent of the state’s precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, the vote was 284,117 to 201,203 — or 58.5 percent to 41.5 percent — against repealing the law.

“We’re all very disappointed by the vote,” said Skip Greenlaw, chairman of the Maine Coalition to Save Schools, which mounted the drive to repeal the law. “I suppose when you can spend $300,000 on television ads and we had no money for ads, this is what happens. We know we were right, but a lot of people were not able to hear our message, and that’s unfortunate.”

Greenlaw maintained his view that the law is flawed and again blamed the Baldacci administration for foisting consolidation on the state.

“We were bamboozled,” he said. “The administration bamboozled the Legislature into this and it bamboozled Maine people into believing that this will save money, which we know it won’t. We’ll just have to see where this leaves us.”

Opponents of repeal, of course, had a different view of the results.

“Obviously, we’re pleased with the results,” said Newell Augur, manager for the No on 3 campaign. “And the decision by this margin indicates that Maine people understood what was at stake in Question 3, understood the significant savings and improvements to education that would have been lost if it passed.”

Augur said the vote was about more than just school districts.

“This has a lot to do with setting a course for our state to right-size state and local government to make it more efficient and more effective,” he said.

He noted that Gov. John Baldacci has begun work to consolidate areas of state government, including human services, the jails and now school districts.

“There is more work to do, and tonight Maine voters have said they want to continue that work,” Augur said.

The consolidation issue has been contentious since Baldacci first proposed it and included it in the budget package in 2007. The original proposal called for Maine’s 260 school districts to be consolidated into 26 districts. The Legislature amended the proposal, increasing the target to 80 districts, but retained the $36.5 million in projected savings that the governor had removed from the education budget.

The law required districts to reduce administrative spending in four key areas, and also imposed a penalty on districts that did not comply with the law.

School district consolidation was adopted in 2007 and then revised in order to undo unintended consequences of the consolidation process and to delay the implementation date from 2008 to 2009 after regional planning committees had difficulty developing consolidation plans for their new districts.

Since then, 98 separate school districts, with an average enrollment of 566 students, have reorganized into 26 Regional School Units with an average of 2,133 students, according to the Education Department’s Web site, which also notes that 84 percent of all students in the state are in school districts that have conformed with the law.

As of July 2009, however, there were still 218 districts remaining in the state. Some districts could not find partners with whom they could consolidate. But 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. Proponents of repeal have noted that many of the districts that conform to the law did not have to consolidate.

Question 3 grew out of a grass-roots movement on the part of the newly formed Maine Coalition to Save Schools to garner signatures on a petition calling for repeal.

Proponents of repeal argued that the law is unfair, citing the number of districts that were exempt from consolidation and the loss of subsidy totaling $5 million statewide. They criticized the plan because it has no method for a district or town to get out of the regional school unit if they choose — as the old SAD law did — and because it has resulted in substantial increases in property taxes for some districts.

Opponents of repeal organized their own group to campaign against the measure. Maine People for Improved School Education argued that the Legislature can resolve the problems with the consolidation law given time. But chiefly, they contended that the law is working. Districts that have consolidated have realized savings from that consolidation, according to Maine People, with some banking savings as much as $1.5 million in this first year of consolidation. Repeal, they said, would return the state to an overly bureaucratic system that would cost more in the end.

The Maine Coalition contended, however, that savings in school districts would be offset by increased salary costs. One provision of the law requires that contracts within the new RSUs be merged into a single contract. That process, the coalition said, will result in higher costs, which they estimated at $18 million statewide.

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