Maine voters to decide fate of school district merger law
PORTLAND, Maine - Dozens of school districts across the state have merged with the goal of cutting administrative costs under Maine’s school district consolidation law. Voters will be asked to decide on Election Day whether to undo the whole thing.
Consolidation supporters say that scuttling the law would make a mess of things, not to mention eliminate millions of dollars in savings. Critics of the law, including House Speaker Hannah Pingree and Senate President Libby Mitchell, say it should be repealed.
“We’re not against consolidation; we’re against mandatory consolidation, especially if it doesn’t make sense,’’ said Skip Greenlaw, whose Maine Coalition to Save Schools is leading the repeal effort.
School consolidation supporters point to an analysis by the Maine Legislature’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review that says repealing the law would cost $37 million a year. But critics say there’s no way to quantify those numbers.
Governor John Baldacci spearheaded the idea of school district consolidation to reduce administrative costs. The measure was adopted by the Legislature with bipartisan support over the howls of some critics, mostly from rural districts who feared loss of control of their schools.
Two years later, 98 school districts that averaged 500 students each have been consolidated to 26 districts with an average of 2,100 students, said Education Department spokesman David Connerty-Marin. Eighty-four percent of public school students are in districts that either have complied with the law or are exempt.
But 126 rural schools districts have declined to comply with the law and face potential state funding reductions.
Baldacci, who signed a law delaying penalties for those districts for a year, said the efficiencies and cost savings are just now beginning to be realized.
“I think that we’ve got to continue to move forward,’’ he said. “We can’t go backwards.’’
Both critics and supporters of school consolidation agree that something needed to be done to reduce school administrative costs as enrollment declines. Public school enrollment has dropped from roughly 250,000 in 1970 to less than 200,000 today. Enrollment has dropped 9 percent so far this decade.
But the Maine Coalition to Save Schools contends that the law was hastily conceived and will not produce promised savings. In fact, in some cases, school districts have seen overall costs grow, critics say.
Mitchell, a Vassalboro Democrat, said her taxes went up after the local school union was dissolved in favor of a unit comprising Vassalboro, Winslow, and Waterville schools. Legislative attempts to fix the law to give school districts greater latitude in finding ways to reduce costs have failed.
Maine People for Improved School Education, a political action committee formed to lobby voters to keep the consolidation law intact, raised $231,000 from July 6 to Sept. 30. Maine Coalition to Save Schools, meanwhile, raised $6,000 in the same period.
Newell Augur, treasurer and campaign manager of the antirepeal group, said the newly formed Regional School Units are finding millions of dollars of cost reductions. One unit is saving $1.5 million a year on administrative costs, and another one reduced its insurance premium by more than $100,000.
“With all those savings on the table, why would Maine people want to repeal this law?’’ Augur said.