Penalizing towns cannot be justified

Posted March 09, 2010, at 6:25 p.m.

The Legislature, at the urging of the commissioner of education and the governor, still want to penalize Maine towns that have chosen not to consolidate into large school districts. Even now, when nobody has any money, they persist in thinking that taking money from residents in some towns and giving to others is legitimate. The facts — and sound moral reasoning — do not justify their position. These penalties should be removed immediately.

Consider three facts that have surfaced since the consolidation law went into effect in June 2007.

First, the Department of Education “exempted” 54 school districts from having to consolidate. They did so, presumably, because these districts already were “efficient” and didn’t need to become “more efficient.” The truth: 48 percent of these districts were spending above the state average per pupil in 2007-08. And in 2006-07, 57 percent spent above the state average. By comparison, 58 percent of the districts required to pay penalties spent above the state average in 2007-08; 57 percent — the same proportion as the “exempts” — did in 2006-07.

The penalized towns are about as efficient as the exempt towns. So, how come they’re having money withheld by the state and the exempt towns are not?

Breaking down expenditures further for the 43 larger exempts: 30 percent of these “efficient” units paid more than the state average for their central office-superintendent in ’07-08; 40 percent paid more for school building administration; 42 percent paid more for special education instruction; 58 percent spent more for “student and staff support.”

Once again, why were these towns exempted from our school district efficiency requirements? If “inefficient” districts are being penalized, why are these exempts not included? Certainly not because they were more efficient.

Second, 39 percent of penalized towns spent less per pupil than the average exempt district in 2007-08. Some exempt towns spent more in ’07-08 than a number of the penalized towns. So much for the state’s attention to “efficiency” How much you spent to educate your children was not used to determine who was exempted from the law and who was not. Penalties are clearly not justified by the stated goals of this law.

Third, and adding insult to the injury of a financial penalty, the exempt towns have been collecting substantially higher state funds in recent years than the penalized towns. Last year, the year before consolidation took effect, the exempt towns received from the state an average of $5,109 per student. The penalized towns received an average of $3,616. The state funded an average of 50.1 percent of exempt towns’ school budgets while funding only an average of 40.4 percent of penalized towns.

If the Legislature maintains the consolidation penalty, Maine towns that already receive less state funding will get less and the money they should receive will be paid to towns that already get more. All this when the residents of most Maine towns — including the vast majority of penalized towns in our more rural regions — are facing severe financial hardship.

These penalties are unjustifiable because the process for “exempting” some districts had no data-based rationale related to efficiency. They are unjustifiable because some penalized towns perform more efficiently than do some exempt towns. They are unjustifiable because, in taking from the poor and giving to the rich, the state creates greater inequity in state funding rather than less.

Let’s stop making a poor piece of legislation worse. Penalizing 120 Maine towns will not encourage consolidation. Instead, let’s put our meager resources into creating opportunities for all towns and districts to find efficiencies.

Gordon Donaldson is a professor of education at the University of Maine.

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