The Maine State Government, specifically our Governor John Baldacci and the Department of Education carrying out his mandate, has ordered the 290 school districts to consolidate into 80. Actually, the governor wanted a much smaller number, the Legislature settled on 80. The DOE says the project will save money. It also will virtually eliminate local control of schools and put that control into a new district wide school committee. It also turns present control over city/town/current administrative district schools to the new entity. But unless I’ve missed something along the way, just how those savings will be attained hasn’t been explained. The state Legislature last June passed a law supporting the mandates.
One area the DOE says can save money is by eliminating some administration costs, such as by having a single superintendent of schools serving an entire district. One minor problem with that savings is it won’t be evident for at least three years as most school supers in Maine have three year contracts. Since the new consolidated districts haven’t taken effect yet, there are current school districts extending the contracts of their supers.
Teacher contracts will be altered to give all teachers in a consolidated district the same salary/benefits, generally those of the highest pay in a current local district. All communities in a new consolidated district will also have to share the costs. This is a problem for some current systems that have worked for years to keep their costs low and now are faced with property tax increases.
These are just a few of the problems arising from this ill-conceived, poorly planned consolidation effort. The mandate was presented to the Legislature in the closing days of the last session and rushed through. There was little or no public discussion and little or no input by the local communities involved. Even the Legislature spent minimal time on the law.
The results were predictable. Even though all but perhaps one local is conforming to the mandates with little or no direction or help from the DOE are moving as best they can forward toward consolidation, the complaints have been many and loud. Several legislators have heard the complaints and at least 20 bills have been introduced in the legislative session that began Jan. 2nd to make changes. Some of those include delaying the implementation to give communities time to better negotiate with neighbors with consolidation and monetary details. There have been calls for delay to give school districts more planning time and there have been calls to cancel the whole thing.
Various news organizations report that at a legislative education committee meeting yesterday, one legislator told the gathering that some districts were faced with huge, unworkable geographical areas. Others, he said, were complying only because there was a proverbial gun to their heads. Other suggestions included allowing administrative consolidation as opposed to merging whole school districts.
Members of the committee, however, have listened to the problems coolly and say they hope there are no major changes in the mandate and will resist most of the calls for change before the full Legislature.
Meanwhile, there is a group gathering signatures seeking to have the voters in Maine overturn the law. They have until the end of the month to gather 56 thousand signatures and so far are about 15 thousand shy.
Other than the “millions of dollars” in savings proclaimed by the governor, until we learn where they are coming from, I have a strong feeling this plan is going to cost Maine’s already overtaxed residents a lot more in educational costs than we are now paying. The governor led the establishment of insurance “reform” a couple of years ago pledging that it would lower the cost of insurance. All that boondoggle succeeded in accomplishing was putting Maine into the unenviable position of being among the highest insurance rate payers in the nation.
I’d be very surprised if this school consolidation business didn’t drain our personal finances even more. We are already faced with rising food, gas, heating oil, insurance and other prices and we have a Legislature that has never seen a tax proposal it didn’t love so I really have little hope for school consolidation savings.
The governor also has proposed county jail consolidation to save us more "millions of dollars," but that’s another story.
I’m retired, and my pocketbook simply can’t stand any more “millions of dollar” savings.