October 8, 2012

Officials warn about haste in ending school merger pacts

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Residents of nearly 20 communities across Maine are facing long negotiations and emotional votes to dissolve school districts formed three years ago under a state mandate.

SCHOOL REORGANIZATION LAW

The law, enacted in 2007 under the Baldacci administration, sets state policy to ensure that schools be organized as units to provide equitable educational opportunities, rigorous academic programs, uniformity in delivering programs, a greater uniformity in tax rates, more efficient and effective use of limited resources, preservation of school choice and maximum opportunity to deliver services in an efficient manner.

All school units were required to work with other units to reorganize into larger, more efficient units. Where expansion was impractical or inconsistent with state policy, units could reorganize their own administrative structures to reduce costs.

The aim of the law was to form school districts with at least 2,500 students. When that was not practical, school districts were told to aim for 1,200 students. The intent of the law was to reduce the number of school districts in the state from 290 to 80.

The flurry of withdrawals was not unexpected by state officials, who heard for years from people who were upset with what they considered forced consolidation.

Now, after the required 30 months in their consolidated districts, communities have the option to leave.

The desire to leave a regional school unit is most often driven by concerns about money and local control.

The 2007 law was an attempt to cut administrative costs by merging the state's 290 school districts into 80 regional units. Some school districts -- including large ones and schools that were considered high-performing -- had to do little to comply with the law, while others struggled to find communities with which to form a new district.

From the beginning, some people were unhappy with the prospect of joining larger school units, especially under the threat of penalties. School districts that didn't comply were told they would see a 50 percent reduction in system administration allocations -- that meant $105 less per student -- and less favorable consideration for funding of school construction projects.

Those threats never sat well with Ron Michaud, a former Saco mayor and now a member of the Regional School Unit 23 Board of Directors. He is a member of the committee that's working to craft the city's separation from the unit it formed with Dayton and Old Orchard Beach.

When legislative committees considered changes to the law to allow withdrawal, he went to Augusta to testify that communities should be given another chance to consider RSU arrangements with the penalties removed.

"I felt strongly the democratic system should have let people re-vote. ... We don't know if people voted (to form RSUs) because of the threat of penalty," Michaud said. "It always comes down to two things: money and control. ... In Maine, people like to know they have the ability to control their own destiny."

With the option to withdraw, communities from York County to Washington County are reconsidering their school districts' structure.

Four towns -- Arundel, Glenburn, Veazie and Frankfort -- have scheduled votes for Nov. 6 on withdrawal agreements approved by the Department of Education. If approved, the agreements will take effect for the next fiscal year.

Earlier this year, Starks and Portage Lake completed withdrawals from school units that existed before the reorganization law. Seventeen other communities are seeking to withdraw from a total of eight regional school units, from Arundel in York County to Cherryfield in Washington County.

Durham will start that process if voters decide Nov. 6 to form a committee to dissolve its union with RSU 5. North Yarmouth voters will decide next month whether they want to break a 46-year bond with the neighboring town of Cumberland. North Yarmouth was not subject to the 30-month requirement because its district existed before the reorganization law.

The withdrawal process -- similar to a divorce in that it divides assets and debt and dissolves a union -- is long and emotional for many communities because residents have a vested interest in keeping costs under control and providing the best education possible.

"In the end, you hope there's a balance of emotion and honest analysis of what it all means," said David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education.

The requirement that RSU arrangements last 30 months was established so towns wouldn't decide to separate soon after districts were formed, Connerty-Marin said.

"They need to at least give it a chance," he said. "There should be a way for (towns) to get out when it doesn't make sense, but it shouldn't be easy."

(Continued on page 2)

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