AUGUSTA, Maine— Officials from rural school districts pleaded Wednesday for more flexibility in complying with Maine’s 2007 school consolidation law, while the Baldacci administration made its case against a resident-initiated effort to repeal the measure altogether.
Taking the unusual step of working through lunch and enforcing time limits on public comments, the Education Committee heard testimony on more than a dozen bills seeking changes in the law or nullifying it. The measure is intended to save tax dollars by reducing the duplication of public education services among school systems.
But the hearing was unlikely to stop a referendum in November on the overarching question of repeal.
The referendum was forced by a petition drive.
Lawmakers must either pass the repeal proposal or send it to voters; in the past, they have tended to let voters decide.
Referendum supporters see consolidation as an assault on local control, especially in rural areas known for moose-crossing signs and vast forests separating small towns. They say the law has failed to deliver savings to local districts.
The sponsor of the repeal bill, Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, said the law has been “too much, too fast” and has failed to produce local savings as promised. He called consolidation “a strong-armed tactic that has no place in our rural state.”
But the state Education Department says that $36 million per year in savings have already been achieved under the law, which was strongly pushed by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s administration.
The department says 94 former school administrative units have been rezoned into 24, putting about 80 percent of students in units that have met the requirements of the consolidation law.
Education Commissioner Susan Gendron defended the law, saying in prepared testimony that it corrects fragmentation in the public school system and improves academic cohesion among the schools.
Representatives of many rural schools told lawmakers they have tried reaching out to other districts to consolidate but have failed to do so by the state’s deadline. Districts had to present final organization plans by Dec. 1, 2007, and plans were subject to local voters’ approval. Units voting against reorganization face penalties as of July 1.
But school officials stopped short of calling for an outright repeal, asking instead for additional time or elimination of financial penalties for failing to comply.
Alan Smith, superintendent of School Union 90 in the Old Town area, said unfulfilled efforts to consolidate with neighboring units has resulted in “a lot of second-guessing, a lot of hard feelings.”