AUGUSTA, Maine — Two weeks after failing at the polls, opponents of Maine’s school consolidation law were back in the State House on Tuesday with a list of proposed fixes that they argue will make the controversial mandate more palatable to holdout towns.
On Nov. 3, more than 58 percent of Maine voters supported upholding the 2007 law that aims to save money by requiring many communities throughout the state to merge school administrative functions with those in nearby towns.
Despite the strong voter endorsement, school officials and lawmakers on both sides of the issue acknowledged Tuesday that the law likely needs revision to gain traction in communities where consolidation remains politically unpopular.
Some speakers, including several superintendents, urged lawmakers on the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee to make the law more flexible by eliminating the minimum size restrictions for new regional school units, or RSUs. Allowing alternative reorganization plans, such as smaller RSUs, would be most beneficial to small towns in sparsely populated areas, proponents said.
Several speakers on both sides of the issue also endorsed creating a withdrawal provision to give towns an opportunity to later opt out of an RSU if the reorganization proves costly or impractical. Others suggested negotiating statewide contracts.
Some proposed fixes remain controversial, however.
Committee members heard starkly different takes on suggestions that the Legislature eliminate the financial penalties assessed against towns that fail to reorganize. The Legislature granted a one-year reprieve from the penalties for the more than 125 districts that have not approved reorganization plans.
As of Tuesday, the number of school districts had dropped from 290 to 215, but that is still well above the goal of 80 RSUs established by the law.
Skip Greenlaw, who led the unsuccessful referendum campaign to repeal the school consolidation law, said now is the wrong time to impose penalties on towns already facing budget cuts due to the recession.
Instead, school districts where consolidation proposals fail at the ballot box should be allowed to come up with their own solutions to find efficiencies. “Consolidation should stand or fall on its own financial merit and the impact on the quality of education,” Greenlaw said.
But Bill Webster, superintendent of RSU 24 in the Ellsworth area, said penalties help prod communities into reorganizing, thereby eventually saving the state and towns money.
Webster estimated that the newly formed RSU, which serves a dozen communities, has saved at least $400,000 this year. Those savings likely will grow to $600,000 or more next year, he said.
But had the threat of penalties not been a part of the equation, Webster is convinced that the consolidation proposal that created RSU 24 would have failed. Repealing the penalties now would be disingenuous, he said.
“My 12 towns played by the rules,” Webster said. “Please do not reward the communities that did otherwise.”
Sen. Carol Weston, R-Montville, countered that laws are changed all of the time after legislators and the public have had time to assess their impacts. The issue, Weston said, is doing what is best for education rather than standing by the penalty provision.
“It’s not a matter of being fair or not,” Weston said. “It’s a matter of we are actually taking money away from children’s education.”
Some of the harshest criticism of the state’s handling of the consolidation law came from Quenten Clark, superintendent for SAD 58 in northern Franklin County. Clark said voters rejected a consolidation plan that would have created a mammoth RSU stretching from near Belgrade to the Canadian border at Coburn Gore.
Clark said the Department of Education’s involvement has created strong animosities that fuel opposition to any consolidation. Had local officials been able to come up with their own workable plan, it likely would have passed, he said.
“In northern Franklin County, I am trusted,” Clark said. “[Commissioner] Sue Gendron and her minions are not.”
Donald Siviski, superintendent of RSU 2 south and west of Augusta, acknowledged that consolidation hasn’t always been easy. But since his RSU’s formation, school officials have improved curriculum across the district, introduced broadband Internet into all of the high schools, enhanced the nutritional value of school lunches and found savings in unexpected areas.
“We are making a difference in the lives of kids,” Siviski said. “It is a quality education no matter where you go to school.”
Lawmakers will discuss the proposed revisions and other education policy issues when they return in January for the second session of the 124th Legislature.