Among the many decisions facing voters on Nov. 3, one of the most important, but also among the least discussed, is Question 3, the proposal to repeal the state’s school consolidation law passed in 2007.
There has been much disagreement about the law and general agreement that it could be improved. We concur in that judgment. But what does not make sense to us is to take a step backward and simply take the law off the books.
Much has happened since the Maine Children’s Alliance published “A Case for Cooperation” in 2006. It was one of several statewide reports calling attention to some of the difficulties Maine schools are facing.
In part because of its strong tradition of local control, Maine has many small school districts and many small schools. It has some of the smallest class sizes in the nation; 40 percent of our high schools have fewer than 300 students — meaning that they struggle to teach the comprehensive curriculum essential to prepare students for higher education. And because enrollment has been declining each year, it costs more to educate each student than in most other states.
The consolidation law is a response to those facts. And although some communities have chosen not to seek greater cooperation with their neighbors, many have voted for change. Enough new school districts have been created so that we can get a preliminary idea of what the future may look like. Four of the new districts, located in southern, central and western Maine, offer a good test of what is possible.
RSU 1, based in Bath, reorganized a year earlier and has been able to accomplish the most so far. Through merging two central offices, consolidating administration, and more efficient purchasing, it has saved well over $1 million in each of its first two budgets.
RSU 10 in Rumford, which comprises three former SADs, got an early start on its budget and identified $600,000 in savings in its first year. RSU 24 in Ellsworth, with 12 previously separate communities, has saved $400,000, and RSU 23 in Saco has saved $300,000. In each case, the first-year savings were greater than predicted in the reorganization plans that voters approved.
In just four of the 26 new districts formed under the consolidation law, taxpayers have saved well over $2 million. The superintendents of the new districts all predict greater savings in the future, as the new school boards, administrators and teaching staff have time to set priorities and organize new programs.
Equally significant, the new districts have been able to improve their educational offerings. RSU 1 has tripled the number of advanced placement courses it offers, added foreign languages to several elementary schools and beefed up career education.
To simply ignore this progress and repeal the law that led to it is not the right course for Maine.
Opponents of the law object to some of its provisions, but they do not lay out any alternatives that would enable schools to offer better programs and use tax dollars more efficiently.
We believe there are other techniques that can assist school districts that have not yet found the right answers. A bill to promote voluntary cooperative agreements was passed by the Legislature this year, and it may in time prove to be an effective way to meet some of the goals of the consolidation law.
The Sinclair Act that was enacted in 1957 and created the first regional school districts in Maine was built for the long term. It took a decade for the law to bring local benefits to all parts of the state.
We must look at the new law as a similar long-term proposition. Where it needs to be improved, it can be. Where local districts need more guidance, or more flexibility, it can be achieved. But the fact remains that this is the first concerted effort by the state in half a century to respond to the changed conditions facing public education.
These conditions include a smaller number of students statewide and much greater expectations for the students who graduate and need postsecondary education and training.
It will take time to get it right, but we must build on what already has been achieved. That’s why we recommend a no vote on Question 3.
Dean Crocker is president of the Maine Children’s Alliance.