Monday, January 21, 2008

Mandated Consolidation and the Kids

Saturday I wrote about what I consider to be a total mess and something that probably should be abandoned at least until an honest plan can be worked out. It was about the school consolidation law that Maine has on the books and which consolidates a whole lot of local school districts and already unified administrative districts into 80 consolidated districts.

You can read about just a small amount of the mass confusion in the piece below. I had planned to let it ride right there until more confusion had been discussed by the Legislature. But, if you read the comment at the end, the commenter asked a really good question. What about the kids?

What a great question that is. There has been precious little written about the effect on kids. The mandated consolidation is about saving money. Of course no one can explain who will benefit from that savings, either. Except there’s a real good chance the state will be able to use the consolidation as a reason not to fund local education at levels voters approved in referendum a couple of years ago. The Legislature took it upon itself then to decimate the referendum and still has not met its goals in spite of the voters’ wishes.

Now I suspect it’s looking for a legal way to cut that funding dramatically. After all, we’re facing an official $93 million budget shortfall and many people from all sides of the issue say that’s a very conservative estimate. Before the biennial fiscal budget is over, and we’re less than half way now, the shortfall could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. I believe the state is hoping this ill-conceived consolidation plan will take care of a goodly portion of it.

The local property tax payer just could be hit very hard with the consolidation. Part of that goes right to the heart of my commenter’s question. What about the kids? They will end up suffering. Many regions of Maine are extremely rural. We have few what you might call urban areas. Greater Portland, Lewiston-Auburn, and Bangor come to mind as possibly the only real ones. Most of the population over the rest of the state is spread out very thinly.

Our governor, John Baldacci, assures us that schools won’t be closed. He says school buildings could serve as service centers for the population. If a building is to have that designation, it would have to close as a school. So, if this comes to pass, students who attended classes in many schools will have to be bussed much longer distances. I’ve read in some places that those commutes for the kids could be anywhere from a half hour to two hours each way each day. The supporters of the governor will say this is absolute nonsense, but all one really has to read are the governor’s own words.

The ending of buildings as schools probably won’t happen in the first year or two; but once the consolidated district committees have budget problems, they’ll look to closing buildings. I suspect parents will rapidly become unhappy when their children have to be at bus stops at five or six o’clock in the morning when in Maine during the school year it’s very dark.
Extra-curricular activities, which I personally believe are an extremely important part of a youngster’s education program, could also take a hit. Can you imagine having to travel an hour or two after school to play a game and then travel back? As a parent, I might have to think twice about my child’s participation, even though the lessons learned in such activities prepare youth for life.

These are just a couple of ways that kids potentially can be affected by this terrible law. I haven’t read too much about what will happen in classrooms, but my imagination says the potential for a lot of not nice things happening are there. I don’t think the governor or Department of Education really gives a whistle about “the kids.” They just want to save tax dollars for them to spend as they wish. Unfortunately, for us property owners, the potential tax increases will continue our fall into worsening financial conditions.

I’d be very surprised if my “What about the kids?” commenter doesn’t give me some direction here so stay tuned.


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