October 10, 2012

Our View: Dissolving mergers won't end schools' problems

Maine will continue to have too many districts and excess costs if consolidation critics prevail.

Critics of school district consolidation may get what they want when voters go to the polls this Nov. 6.

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Students were meant to benefit from the school consolidation law that critics want to dismantle.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

Relieved by the Legislature of the penalties for failure to consolidate that were part of the original 2007 state law, towns now have a means to extract themselves from the shotgun marriages they were required to enter.

If some districts go ahead with those divorces, others are likely to follow, and state officials will face a familiar problem. Is it possible to limit the growth of administrative costs in Maine schools, or will back-office operations continue to absorb resources better spent in classrooms?

Before we completely dismantle the school consolidation law, it's worth remembering why it was passed in the first place.

In addition to spending money more efficiently, the new districts were proposed to even out the differences in educational opportunity between districts and give students a bigger range of programs to choose from.

The central mechanism for achieving this would be reducing the number of school districts from 290 to 80, making more schools share superintendents, curriculum developers and business offices. This was not a big-government takeover but an attempt to reduce the size and cost of government.

It is also important to remember that although there have been a number of vocal critics from the beginning of the consolidation effort, as a whole, it is popular with most Mainers. When a citizen-initiated repeal effort was put before the voters in 2009, it was defeated 58 percent to 42 percent. But the voices of the minority who don't want to consolidate have always managed to drown out the majority.

It's easy to see why. You wouldn't need a law to get school districts that are perfect matches to consolidate. In those cases, all that's needed is a little technical support, and maybe a small incentive. But the districts that are harder to bring together do need a law, and if there is no penalty for failing to merge, they will get out of the new districts or fail to form one in the first place.

And if they do, then Maine will continue to have too many small districts that offer wildly different programs, and as a state we will spend money in superintendents' offices that should be spent in classrooms.

Then maybe the people who tore the system down can come up with a better idea.

 

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