Tuesday’s election will be the first large public referendum on school district consolidation as voters in dozens of communities vote on reorganization plans. As the reasons for consolidation pile up — high costs and the likelihood of flat funding from the state in the next budget cycle — so do objections to the mandated reorganization. While hard work has been done and many plans are likely to be approved, much has yet to be done, especially in rural areas, to overcome objections to consolidation.
A recent study by the Center for Research and Evaluation at the University of Maine’s College of Education found that, despite moving forward with consolidation plans, many regional planning committee members remained skeptical about the cost savings and educational benefits.
Worse, education and elected officials in some communities are recommending that voters reject their district’s consolidation plans. The Houlton Town Council this week voted unanimously to encourage residents to vote against a plan that would have them consolidate with several neighboring districts, although the plan has been approved by the commissioner of education. Their largest concern was that the agreement would shift and raise costs.
When a town council is ready to incur a $68,000 penalty, as Houlton would, for rejection of a consolidation plan, the system is not working. At the same time, the status quo is not sustainable.
After years of encouraging voluntary cost-savings and offering financial incentives for consolidation failed to slow the growth in education spending, lawmakers last year approved a reduction in the number of school districts from 290 to no more than 80.
This came after the public, in 2004, voted to require the state to pick up 55 percent of kindergarten through 12th grade costs, with proponents pledging that increased state funding would result in significant reductions in local property taxes. Since the 2004-05 biennium, state funding to school districts has increased by more than $583 million. Total state funding to local school districts will have increased by 37 percent from 2006 to 2009. The consumer price index is projected to rise by 11 percent during that time period.
The large increases come at a time when the number of students in Maine is dropping. The student population has dropped by 40,000 since the early 1980s and is projected to decline another 20,000 in the next five years.
As a result, growth in per pupil spending in Maine has far outpaced the national average. This is why school administrative costs must be reduced.
Against this backdrop, 17 reorganization plans will go to voters on Nov. 4. They include plans for Searsport and Belfast; Presque Isle, Ashland and Nashville Plantation; Bar Harbor, Trenton and several islands; Etna and Newport; and the St. John Valley.
Where plans are rejected, the state will withhold administrative funds. That could add up to more than $400,000 for SAD 34 in Belfast and $156,000 for its partner SAD 56 in Searsport, as an example. Districts where consolidation is rejected will also get less favorable treatment for their construction projects.
Assessing penalties makes many feel like they are being forced to consolidate. But, harsh reality dictates that education costs can’t continue to rise as they have. By voting to consolidate, towns acknowledge and take a step toward addressing that reality.