Consolidation, Phase 2

Posted Nov. 05, 2009, at 7:25 p.m.

The failure of the repeal of the state’s school administration consolidation law does not mean work is done on this issue. Many districts in rural areas have not consolidated and many of their residents voted to repeal the law. Lawmakers must turn their attention to these areas and work to find ways to make the law work there.

Statewide, 58 percent of voters rejected Question 3, which sought to repeal the consolidation law. However, voters in Aroostook, Piscataquis, Hancock, Washington, Lincoln and Franklin counties favored the repeal. Numerous school consolidation plans were rejected earlier this year, showing that additional help is needed, especially in rural areas.

The bottom line remains that 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, but as voters recognized Tuesday, this work must continue.

The idea behind the 2007 law 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.

Failure to live up to expectations, the majority of voters concluded, is not a reason to abandon this effort.

Skip Greenlaw, who organized the repeal effort, said two changes are especially needed: the penalties should be eliminated and there should be a mechanism for towns to exit consolidated districts if problems arise.

Earlier this year, lawmakers put financial penalties for not consolidating on hold for a year, which was a reasonable accommodation. The financial penalties were meant to prod districts toward consolidation. Districts may soon face a more effective prod: school funding from the state will drop precipitously in 2011, when the state stops receiving federal stimulus funds that it is now applying to its education aid. Declining state revenues due to the recession mean additional cuts are likely as well.

Giving towns a way to leave a consolidated unit makes sense, as long as there is a mechanism for them to join another.

Rep. Emily Cain, the House chair of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers will be ready to help districts that have yet to consolidate. For example, the timeline and district size requirements could be changed. Such changes were put on hold during the legislative session earlier this year because the repeal referendum was pending.

But, the Orono Democrat cautioned, the focus must remain on the need to ensure that as the number of schoolchildren decreases that resources are directed to classrooms, not administration.

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.

Voters Tuesday reaffirmed that this is not sustainable. The consolidation law, with targeted fixes by lawmakers, enables Maine to move forward with fixing this problem.

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