March 6, 2010

Panel endorses amendments to school consolidation law

By MATTHEW STONE Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA – School districts that are struggling to comply with Maine's consolidation law could have added flexibility in drawing up merger agreements under changes endorsed Friday by a legislative committee.

The proposed amendments to the consolidation law will go to the full Legislature next.

The changes recommended by the Education Committee would eliminate minimum size requirements that some rural districts have been unable to meet, and would let towns withdraw from new school districts they have joined.

The amendments are the latest that legislators have sought since the law passed in June 2007.

The law was originally intended to merge Maine's 290 school districts into 80, to save on administrative costs. But opposition in small districts thwarted dozens of mergers, leaving Maine with 215 districts. Districts with 2,500 or more students were exempt from the merger mandate.

Under the proposed amendments, small districts that want to merge administrative offices could skirt minimum student numbers if they could show state officials that it's impossible to form larger, regional districts.

While the original law set a 2,500-student minimum for merged school districts, amendments allowed districts as small as 1,000 students -- still too many for many of the state's rural communities.

Maine's education commissioner would have discretion to approve plans for the smaller merged districts.

The provision to let towns withdraw from new districts would allow the voter-approved change after a town has been part of a district for at least three years.

For two years afterward, a town wouldn't be subject to penalties tied into the consolidation law -- state aid cuts. The same timeline would apply for the towns left behind in a new school district, which would have to reformulate their consolidation agreement.

State education officials say the expected changes to the consolidation law have renewed interest in pursuing mergers.

"It was very important from the beginning that we not make any major changes to the law," said Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin. "But this allows some modest changes ... that give some flexibility to districts that find themselves in special and unique circumstances."


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