With the prospect of a repeal of the school district consolidation law now behind them, the state Department of Education and the Legislature will be faced with deciding what to do next with the controversial law.
Maine voters rejected the repeal by a whopping 91,354-vote margin. With 99 percent of precincts reporting Wednesday, voters had rejected repeal 318,064 to 226,710, or 58.4 percent to 41.6 percent.
Skip Greenlaw, chairman of the Maine Coalition to Save Schools that mounted the repeal campaign, said he was deeply disappointed with the results which, he said, were reflective of the fact that his campaign was outspent by the No on 3 group that opposed repeal.
“We are disappointed that we did not have $300,000 to tell our side of the story on radio and TV,” he said in a news release. “It is obvious and disturbing that money is still the mother’s milk of politics.
“The problem was that there are so many more taxpayers who live in communities which did not experience consolidation, and hence had little understanding of the law or empathy for our point of view.”
The defeat of the repeal effort represents an understanding of the challenges that education is facing, according to Dana Connors, president of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, who served as spokesman for the No on 3 campaign.
“I think that people understood the financial challenges we’re facing and the need to continue to provide a quality education for our young people,” Connors said Wednesday. “I think they saw that there was duplication and that there were efficiencies to be gained and they recognized that this consolidation effort is the right thing to do at this time.”
With the vote behind it, the Education Department plans to continue the work of school district reorganization, according to spokesman David Connerty-Marin.
“We know that there are some districts that have been waiting to see what the [result] of the vote was but have been having quiet conversations about moving toward reorganization,” he said Wednesday. “We’re prepared to work with them and we also want to continue the exciting work with districts who have already reorganized to support them as they expand educational opportunities to students.”
The Legislature expects to tackle unresolved issues surrounding consolidation in January, although the specific measures have yet to be determined , according to Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven. Several proposals were shelved during the last session, and new bills have been submitted this year for consideration. Legislative leadership will decide, probably in January, which of those measures to bring before the Legislature and the Education Committee plans to meet before January to begin discussing possible legislation.
With repeal no longer an issue, Pingree said, the discussion in the Education Committee and the full Legislature will be able to focus on consolidation itself.
“Even before consolidation, discussions about education could be contentious,” she said. “But now we can concentrate on how to move consolidation ahead. The conversation will be different. That doesn’t mean it will be easier; these are complicated issues. But we can now focus on implementation.”
Greenlaw hopes to work with legislators on issues such minimum size for districts to consolidate, eliminating the penalties for those who did not comply with the law, and including a method for towns to withdraw from a district.
“There’s a list of things we hope to work with the Legislature on,” Greenlaw said. “This isn’t over.”
The Maine Chamber also will remain involved in the consolidation issue, Connors said, noting that education is a business issue.
“Quality education makes a difference,” he said. “Economies will change, but providing a quality education that allows our young people to gain as much knowledge, experience and skill as they can, is a priority. It always will be and, I would argue, always should be.”
While the law still needs some tweaking, Connerty-Marin said, it is unlikely that there will be a “wholesale restructuring” of the measure during the coming session.
The penalties imposed by the law remain an issue, but Connerty-Marin said that they become less significant in light of the current economic stresses that the state is facing. The penalties, he said, are considerably smaller than the anticipated subsidy reductions for the current and future budget years.
Education Commissioner Susan Gendron on Tuesday notified superintendents around the state that the department has been given an initial target of $38.1 million in additional reductions for the current school year. While Gendron noted that the targets were not final, they are 1.4 times the planned reductions in the current budget.
The commissioner also noted that general purpose aid for fiscal year 2011 has been set at $910 million, $92 million less than the original fiscal year 2010 appropriation of $1 billion.
Those reductions will put the penalties in a different light, although they will still remain an issue, Connerty-Marin said.
“We can still look at helping the remaining school systems to come into compliance with the law, but we can also help districts to look to the future,” he said. “We have some very significant financial issues to deal with and we need to work with districts to help them look at how they are going to remain sustainable in the coming years.”