As they have every year since the state’s school district consolidation law was passed, legislators will consider bills to weaken or change the law. This year, however, lawmakers have new information — the state’s voters want consolidation to happen. Unless a bill moves consolidation forward, it should not be given serious consideration.
In November, Maine residents, by 58 to 42 percent, voted to reject a repeal of the school consolidation law. That doesn’t mean they are satisfied with every aspect of the law, but it does mean voters believe it is time to get on with this work.
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 the needed consolidation work.
Still, there are several bills under consideration in the Legislature that would weaken the law or exempt certain districts from its requirements. The Education Committee plans to consolidate some of the bills into one measure to be written by its members.
A common theme is to remove the penalties for districts that fail to consolidate. Early last year, the Legislature waived the penalties for a year. Now that voters have upheld the law, further waiving penalties would just be a delaying tactic.
It is time for the Legislature to break a vicious cycle. Every year since the consolidation law was passed, lawmakers have considered bills to change it. This gave school districts, especially those opposed to the law, a reason to put off action as they awaited changes from the Legislature. When the Legislature adjourned in the spring, it was too late for school districts to act. The next fall, districts again put off action awaiting word from the Legislature as to how the law would be changed.
By not changing the law again this year, the Legislature would send the message that districts can’t simply wait out consolidation, but must take steps to comply with the law.