School consolidation in Maine up for revote in November elec
Students on the Hill traveling to the polls on November 3 will have to cast a vote on Question 3, which, if passed, would repeal the law mandating school district restructuring. The "Repeal the School District Consolidation Law" reform is a statewide veto referendum that attempts to overturn the school consolidation law that was passed by the Maine State Legislature in 2008.
Governor John Baldacci created the School District Consolidation Law with the intent to reduce costs and improve the Maine school system. Under this law, the number of total school districts would be reduced from 285 to 80. In an e-mail addressing the Maine Democratic Party, Baldacci stated that the law creates a "smarter, more sustainable public education program."
The School Consolidation Law, which was originally proposed in 2007 and voted on in 2008, stirred up much controversy then. It has drawn even more attention being disputed the second time around. Supporters claim that 85 percent of Maine schools are already in compliance with the law.
The force behind the push for consolidation comes from the Maine People for Improved School Education, as well as Governor Baldacci. The key arguments for consolidation include the fact that it will save Maine taxpayers $39 million a year and it will create a more efficient school system overall. The focus of the law is not on the individual schools and the teachers, but rather, the administrations that run those schools. "Every teacher will be working and every school will be open--in fact, every school will be stronger because of [the reforms]," Baldacci said.
Maine currently has 285 school districts, a number that has been argued as far too high for Maine's small student population. In a statement released by the Maine People for Improved School Education, the "average number of students in a district, nationally, is about 3,200. In Maine, it's less than 750."
The issue now, claim the consolidation supporters, is that pulling out of the program would cause the state more harm than good. The money that has been saved by consolidating would be lost, which includes the loss of many Gifted and Talented, Advanced Placement, Language and Special Education programs that have been created with the savings. "If Question 3 passes it will be a disaster for our schools and our students," Baldacci said. "Question 3 would be a terrible step in the wrong direction. We cannot afford to go back to the old, inefficient, overly bureaucratic way of doing things in Maine, especially when it doesn't do anything to help our kids."
On the other side of the issue is the Maine Coalition to Save Schools. The head of the campaign, Skip Greenlaw, argues that the consolidation law is not an attempt to improve the school system, but rather a way for the state to escape debt. "Basically, the Governor needed to cut $37 million in expenditures to balance his budget last year. Now he's trying to influence the outcome of the referendum vote by rewriting history."
The "Yes on 3" supporters argue that those supporting the consolidation law have been misrepresenting the facts to Maine citizens. They argue that there would be no net cost savings by consolidating the school districts. In fact, according to an article in The Maine View, school consolidation would result in the largest single increase in property taxes in the history of the state of Maine, and that among the 26 new districts that did consolidate, property tax has gone up in some areas by 25 to 30 percent.
The claim that 85 percent of Maine schools have already consolidated is also a misleading fact. The mandate exempted 65 districts in Maine, and another 100 districts refused to consolidate. Of the exempted districts, many are in large, costly areas, mostly the southern region of the state. If the districts in the regions where the majority of school funding is spent are exempt, they will be forced to take other measures to reduce their spending. And the districts that refused to consolidate were fined, with the current total reaching over $5 million in penalties.
"The state told people up front they would be penalized if they didn't vote for consolidation and that's just not right in a democracy. Even with that threat hanging over their heads, 88,916 voters said "no" to the mandate because they thought it was a bad idea for their communities and their schools," Greenlaw said.
Another penalty of the consolidation law would be the leveling of salaries and programs in consolidated schools. Teacher contracts would have to be merged, resulting in salary increases for some and decreases for others. The same goes for school programs. If a strong school and a weaker school consolidate, the stronger school may be forced to give up some of its special programming to the weaker school in order to balance them.
Instead of dismissing the consolidation law outright, Greenlaw instead calls for a combined effort. "Why aren't we encouraging all districts to work together on collaborations that make sense for the cities and towns involved instead of trying to perpetuate failed legislation?"
And Greenlaw makes a good point. For many citizens in Maine what may be good for one is terrible for another. The consolidation law, which may work for many of the smaller districts in northern Maine, would cause nothing but harm to the larger, more populated districts of the greater Portland area. In fact, simply comparing the populations of northern and southern Maine makes one realize how different the two are. The population of southern Maine at 870,000, is nearly twice that of the northern half with barely over 400,000. Many in the state would argue that the two are nearly different states, and that it is impossible for one uniform law to help both in the same way.
Either way, students on the Hill are encouraged to make an informed decision at the polls. Voting "no" on Question 3 would drastically change the Maine school system, and some say it would not necessarily be for the better. Voting "yes" would maintain the status quo, even though it may not be the most cost efficient system.