November 11, 2013

Our View: Time to start over with school merger law

The savings some Maine districts realized was not worth the local control they had to give up.

Wiscasset residents on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to withdraw from Regional School Unit 12 effective next school year. The vote breaks up the eight-town district, formed four years ago in a shotgun marriage of sorts in order to comply with the school consolidation law pushed through in 2007 by then-Gov. John Baldacci.

click image to enlarge

Campaigns for new schools, like this one in Freeport, can be a matter of local pride, not easily transferred to a large district.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

In hindsight, the barely contiguous district seems doomed from the start, without geography, history or a common high school to hold it together. The withdrawal highlights the problems inherent in the landmark legislation, which sought to cut administrative costs but has met resistance by towns used to local control.

Cutting costs by sharing administration is the right policy for Maine, but it’s clear the school district consolidation law is not working. Lawmakers should be meeting with school administrators and local elected officials to find a better way of making the system more efficient.

Consolidation was a major aim for Baldacci, whose original plan called for Maine’s 290 school districts to be whittled to around 80. But some of the proposal’s teeth were removed in the final law, and by the 2011-2012 school year, the number of school districts had declined, but just to 164, and communities unhappy with their new situation were given the option to withdraw after three years.

In the short time since the three-year minimum passed, 22 regional school units have had a member community explore withdrawal, according to the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, and four, in addition to Wiscasset, voted on Tuesday to pull out.

Each case is slightly different, but most have centered around issues of cost and control.

In Freeport-based Regional School Unit 5, for example, some Durham residents unsuccessfully sought withdrawal after feeling overshadowed and outnumbered by larger Freeport. A group in Freeport then began seeking its own withdrawal after voters in the rest of the district failed to support upgrades to the district’s high school, which is located in Freeport. Rising costs and a feeling that education was handled better before consolidation led Ellsworth, Lamoine and Hancock to all vote Tuesday to leave Regional School Unit 24, a 12-town district in Hancock County.

One commonality is that in each case the towns were forced into a partnership that promised savings. Efficiencies were achieved in many cases, but they have been buried in complex RSU budgets and thus difficult to articulate to voters. Without obvious savings, many residents wondered why they were giving up local control, and looked to the opt-out clause to bring things back the way they were.

This is particularly attractive to places such as Wiscasset. The size of Regional School Unit 12, which stretches around 40 miles from Palermo south to Wiscasset and Westport Island, means many of the district’s students do not attend RSU 12’s only high school, Wiscasset High School. In fact, the high school students are spread mainly among Wiscasset and six other schools. That means the RSU 12 communities can’t rally around the same sporting events or concerts. They can’t revel in the same achievements or fight for new programming in the same way as communities that share a high school.

Absent obvious proof that the town is saving money and improving education, it’s easy to see why residents would want out.

Consolidation was done quickly and forcibly, so it’s no surprise that many of the partnerships are not working out in the short time they’ve been given. Perhaps the idea needs another look, so the state can find a way for communities to share resources and enhance programming in a manner that will have more long-lasting results.

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