Bill may relieve school penalties

Posted March 12, 2010, at 9:06 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The latest flood of federal stimulus money to Maine will benefit 15 school districts that have been frustrated in their attempts to consolidate — if recommendations by Gov. John Baldacci are accepted by the Legislature.

Baldacci recommended Thursday to the Legislature that $1.1 million of $86 million in inflated Medicaid matching funds coming to Maine be given to schools that voted to support the state’s school consolidation law but whose partner districts rejected them. The U.S. Senate voted this week in favor of the extension, and the U.S. House of Representatives was expected to consider the bill next week, said a spokesman for Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.

If Baldacci’s plan is endorsed by the Legislature, the $1.1 million would delay penalties against 15 school districts for one year while they seek new consolidation partners, according to David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Maine Department of Education.

The 15 affected districts are Castine, Deblois, Gilead, Highland Plantation, Madawaska, SAD 25 (Stacyville), SAD 37 (Harrington), SAD 53 (Pittsfield), SAD 68 (Dover-Foxcroft), SAD 74 (Anson), Millinocket, Moro Plantation, Surry, Upton and Vanceboro.

SAD 53 has had discussions with 11 school districts in Maine, ranging from neighbors to SAD 12 in Jackman, according to Superintendent Michael Gallagher. When merging with SAD 59 in the Madison area went to referendum, Madison-area voters rejected the plan while SAD 53 voters endorsed it.

Gallagher, whose school board had endorsed closing Burnham Village School and laying off staff to meet revenue declines from state government, said recouping the school consolidation penalty of $182,425 in fiscal year 2010 is a relief. Still, he’s hoping SAD 53 will be granted “doughnut hole status” and permanently be ab-solved from penalties under the school consolidation law.

Gallagher said he was told that might be possible Thursday during a meeting in Augusta with Education Commissioner Susan Gendron and Democratic leaders of the Legislature. The Legislature is considering LD 570, a bill titled “An Act to Improve the Laws Governing the Consolidation of School Administrative Units,” which among other things would give the Department of Education additional flexibility in granting doughnut hole status. The Legislature’s Web site listed that bill as a “concept draft” Friday, which usually means its text is being written.

Baldacci recommended that the rest of the $86 million in increased federal support be used to fill a $35 million gap in the current budget and restore recent funding reductions in a range of areas, including social services, funding for municipalities, general purpose aid to education and other areas.

Baldacci’s proposals were presented to the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee on Thursday.

“These resources offer a bridge to better days,” Baldacci said in a press release. “We must continue to make changes that will leave our state in the best position for economic recovery and growth while also protecting the most vulnerable.”

Breakdown of stimulus funds

Here’s how Gov. John Baldacci proposes to divide up most of the $86 million:

— Fill the $35 million place holder proposed in the current budget for increased federal Medicaid support.

— Restore $33.6 million in proposed reductions in Health and Human Services, including proposed cuts to the Drugs for the Elderly program, hospitals, nursing homes, service providers and crisis services.

— Restore $5.6 million to a proposed reduction in the Circuit Breaker Program, which benefits 13,000 low- and middle-income homeowners.

— Restore $5 million to municipal revenue sharing in fiscal year 2011.

— Restore $5 million to General Purpose Aid to Education.

— Restore $1.1 million for schools who voted to support the state’s education reform law but whose partner districts rejected administrative consolidation.

— Restore $580,000 for adult education.

— Provide $470,000 in debt service for the University of Maine System to bring facilities at the University of Maine into ADA compliance and remove asbestos and mercury contamination.

— Provide $200,000 for the Maine Uncontrolled Hazardous Sites Cleanup.

— Restore $80,000 to the Maine judiciary.

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