Consolidation Consequences

Posted Feb. 15, 2010, at 6:47 p.m.

Maine public schools are bumping up against plenty of hard truths these days. One of them is that the state will provide significantly less funding for the next school year. Another is that student enrollment will continue to drop in the next several years. Those hard truths led to the decision by Gov. John Baldacci and the Legislature to make a hard, but logical decision — push local schools to come together to share administration, transportation, maintenance, facilities and special education services.

These hard truths must be tied to hard consequences. When schools fail to comply with the state’s push to consolidate, they must suffer the financial penalties that were painstakingly explained when the legislation was adopted in 2007. Recent legislative initiatives to delay penalties may seem kindly in the face of hard times, but are not. In fact, they end up punishing the districts that worked hard to find savings by joining with their neighbors.

A recent vote by the Legislature’s Education Committee to delay penalties for schools that failed to consolidate was essentially ignored by the Appropriations Committee last week. That was the right reaction to a bad idea.

“This is the accountability factor,” Rep. Emily Cain, who serves as the House chairwoman of the appropriations panel, said after her committee refused to delay the penalties. The stakes for going it alone have been known for a long time. Rep. Cain notes that last spring the penalty mechanism of the consolidation legislation was delayed until July 1 of this year. She voted against that extension, but since it carried, she believes more than ever that it is time for schools to move forward with consolidation or accept the loss in state subsidy.

“It was not a surprise, it was not a secret,” she said of the penalties.

Residents of school districts who chose to not consolidate may have misread the trends, or misunderstood the times. The economy has been at a historic ebb, and such hard times often inspires people to hunker down and resist change, fearing it will be costly. Instead, the poor economy, coupled with declining student enrollment, should inspire ways to reduce the cost of education.

The state will drastically reduce funding to local schools beginning in July, which will result in either a blood bath of cuts in local schools, a steep hike in the local property tax rate, or both. In fact, the state will pay for only about 44 percent of local education costs across Maine, significantly below the 55 percent the law mandates. Worries about that precipitous fall in funding are real, but they are tangential to the school consolidation initiative.

Another number to consider is that kindergarten through grade 12 subsidy accounts for 40 percent of all state funding. With so much money flowing out of Augusta to schools, the state certainly has a stake is how it is spent.

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