AUGUSTA, Maine — School districts facing financial penalties after they refused or failed to consolidate will get relief from those penalties, but it won’t happen this fall.
The state Legislature has given final approval to a bill that will eliminate those penalties, but it won’t take effect until the 2012-13 school year.
The Senate approved the bill Friday morning after House approval of the legislation on Thursday. The amended bill eliminates the penalty on those districts that failed to comply with the law by not reorganizing to form larger school districts, either a regional school unit or an alternative organizational structure.
“I think this is excellent news,” said Robert Webster, superintendent of schools for Union 76, which includes the towns of Deer Isle, Stonington, Brooklin and Sedgwick. “This will definitely help us out in the 2012-13 school year.”
The four towns in that school union were penalized a total of about $150,000 in the 2011-2012 school year, Webster said. The Deer Isle-Stonington CSD’s portion of that total penalty is $100,000, with Brooklin’s at about $24,000 and Sedgwick’s at about $26,000.
According to Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin, during this school year a total of 66 school units were assessed penalties totaling $3.6 million. In the next school year, 2011-12, the state will assess a total of $2.3 million on 56 school units.
Penalties were assessed in the form of reduced state subsidies to the individual districts.
Although the total number of penalized districts declined by 10 for 2011-12, Connerty-Marin said more than that number have consolidated in the past year. The state waived penalties on some school districts during the 2010-11 school year in cases where a district had approved consolidation but their proposed partners had rejected the reorganization plans. Penalties will be assessed on those districts in the 2011-12 school year, he said.
The measure had strong bipartisan support in the Legislature’s Education Committee, according to committee chairman Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth. It came out of committee with an ”ought to pass” recommendation.
“The general consensus was that the penalties are not a good thing,” Langley said in a recent interview. “Penalizing small schools and districts is not the way the state should be conducting business.”
Although the committee supported the elimination of penalties, committee members opted to amend the bill so the penalties would remain in effect for the 2011-12 school year and be lifted the next year.
Langley explained that, at this point in the year, the preliminary budget sheets have gone out from the Education Department to the towns. Many towns already have completed at least preliminary work on their budgets, he said. Some towns have held their town meetings and adopted budgets for the coming school year.
The LePage administration backed scrapping the penalties, and, in testimony before the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee in April, Commissioner Stephen Bowen proposed “a new direction in reorganization” that provided incentives for voluntary collaboration and regionalization.
In his testimony, Bowen also acknowledged that many school districts had complied with the law and reorganized solely because of the threat of penalties and opposed allowing those that had rejected consolidation to escape the penalties. As a compromise, Bowen also supported delaying the elimination of the penalties until the 2012-13 school year.
With final approval from the Legislature, the measure to eliminate the consolidation penalties now goes to Gov. Paul LePage for his signature.