AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage’s top education official said Friday the administration supports eliminating financial penalties against school districts that have not complied with the consolidation law but does not believe it would be practical for next school year.
Steve Bowen, commissioner of the Department of Education, said the administration would prefer to use a more incentive-based system to encourage school districts to merge voluntarily as a means to reducing administrative costs.
But the political reality is that many school districts complied with the controversial school consolidation law only because of the threat that otherwise the state would withhold education funding, Bowen said.
“They did what the state asked them to do,” Bowen told lawmakers. “They followed the law and went through the effort because of the penalties. And they simply don’t feel it is fair for the districts that did not comply with the law to not have to pay the penalties when they went through the efforts they did.”
In a compromise, the LePage administration is proposing that non-compliant districts still face penalties next year, after which the penalties will be eliminated. The administration would then encourage voluntarily consolidation through a special fund paid for out of the state’s “general purpose aid” account, which supports local schools.
“In this way, the administration upholds the existing law under which school districts have been operating for the last couple of years but does take a decisive step away from a penalty-based approach and toward an incentive-based model,” Bowen told members of the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.
The state’s relatively new education commissioner made his comments on a day when the committee heard hours of testimony on more than a dozen bills related to the contentious school consolidation issue.
Most of the bills seek to eliminate the financial penalties on non-conforming districts or allow individual districts to withdraw from regional school units, or RSUs, without penalty.
A large contingent of superintendents and town officials made the trip to Augusta from Aroostook or Piscataquis counties to urge lawmakers to eliminate penalties they say are merely hurting small, rural schools least equipped to absorb the cuts.
Edward Buckley, superintendent of SAD 45 that includes the Aroostook County towns of Washburn, Perham and Wade, said his small district explored numerous merger possibilities with Presque Isle, Caribou, Mars Hill, Easton, Bridgewater and other towns.
One such proposal would have cost the district more than $600,000 when the administrative savings were balanced out with the changes SAD 45 would have to make as part of an RSU.
“We took that out to the voters and you know what the voters did? Almost unanimously voted it down,” Buckley said.
Fern Desjardins, superintendent of SAD 33 in Frenchville and St. Agatha, said her district’s per-pupil costs are lower than the state average. Consolidating with neighboring communities would have actually increased those costs.
Boxed in by Canada to the north and unorganized territory towns to the south, alternate consolidation options for SAD 33 were extremely limited. So now the district is facing a penalty of $54,000 a year.
“In our small system, a cut of $110,000 is a lot of money,” Desjardins said.
Several of the bills, such as LD 139 by Rep. Peter Edgecomb of Caribou, would scrap the penalties altogether. Other bills sought exemptions for specific districts.
Sen. Troy Jackson, an Allagash Democrat, who supported Edgecomb’s measure but also sponsored a bill to waive the penalties against SAD 32 and 33, said he has seen first-hand the effects that shuttered schools can have on a community.
Jackson suggested a link between a population decline in Allagash and the closure of the town’s high school and elementary school.
“People don’t move to communities that don’t have schools, particularly young people,” Jackson said.