AUGUSTA – Maine’s school district consolidation mandate is again a target of lawmakers this winter as the law that aimed to merge the state’s 290 school districts into 80 approaches its fourth birthday.

More than 25 separate bill requests take aim at different aspects of the law, which required that many of the state’s smaller school units merge with partners or face reductions in state aid.

Already, the law has seen multiple rounds of amendments and a failed effort in November 2009 to repeal it via statewide referendum.

Meanwhile, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration is starting to devise its own changes to the law.

“The fact that it survived a statewide vote doesn’t mean that it’s not controversial,” said Steve Bowen, LePage’s senior policy adviser on education. “It’s controversial in the areas of the state where it had the biggest impact.”

Maine’s 290 school districts have become 179, according to the state Department of Education, with about 80 districts still out of compliance with the law.

Two proposals would repeal the consolidation statute. Others take aim at the penalties that serve as the law’s primary enforcement mechanism. Still others seek to make it easier for towns to withdraw from their current merged districts.

About a third of legislators’ bill requests ask for exemptions to the law for their particular school districts and towns.

“Everyone seems to either want an exemption or an exception,” said Rep. Stephen Lovejoy, a Portland Democrat who’s serving his second term on the Education Committee.

As originally passed, the consolidation mandate exempted districts with 2,500 or more students from the law’s requirements. The law also exempted the state’s island schools.

Last year, legislators approved a handful of additional exemptions for schools in the Greenville, Jackman and Rangeley areas. And the Department of Education has allowed exceptions on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re watering the bill down and watering it down,” Lovejoy said, “and I really think it’s best to put it back in the locals’ hands.”

Lovejoy submitted legislation that would repeal the consolidation statute and eliminate the portion of state school aid aimed at funding school districts’ central office operations. The bill would redirect that money to other areas of school aid.

“It really puts the impetus for consolidation back to where, in my mind, it should have been,” Lovejoy said. “There becomes a financial incentive for the district to take on the work of consolidation on their own.”

And the initiative rewards districts that have already consolidated and reduced administrative overhead, he said.

Rep. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, has submitted legislation that would eliminate the penalties for school districts that haven’t complied with the consolidation law.

Some 15 lawmakers have signed onto the bill as co-sponsors. Edgecomb’s bill would keep the rest of the consolidation law intact.

“In some of these schools that are just struggling to consolidate or are unable to, it’s going to really hurt kids,” Edgecomb said of the penalties. “That’s money that can’t be spent on kids.”

While he’s opposed the consolidation mandate from its start, Edgecomb said he’d prefer to modify the law, not repeal it.

“It gets a little bit more difficult each year that this goes on,” he said, “because you have a few more schools that consolidate.”

This year, 20 school districts have consolidation plans expected to take effect in July, according to the Department of Education.

Rep. Chuck Kruger, D-Thomaston, wants towns to have an easier time withdrawing from consolidated districts.

Currently, a town’s voters can choose to withdraw from a regional school district after they’ve been part of it for three years. The town needs to come up with alternate consolidation plans within two years or risk facing penalties.

“That might work in some places, but it won’t work for the community of St. George,” Kruger said of the community that asked him to submit the bill.

Kruger’s bill would remove the requirement that withdrawn towns make alternate consolidation plans.

“I think the law needs a lot of work,” Kruger said. “I’m for the original concept of consolidating school district administrations. I never thought it was well executed.”

The LePage administration hasn’t decided which “specific tweaks” to the consolidation law that it would support, Bowen said.

But LePage “wasn’t crazy about the approach that the prior administration took, in terms of one size fits all,” Bowen said.

LePage doesn’t favor enforcing consolidation through penalties, according to Bowen, and he also wants to explore consolidation that involves combining school district, municipal and county operations.

On top of that, the days of consolidation exemptions for Maine’s largest school districts could be numbered.

“I don’t think (LePage) believes that because the South Portland, or Auburn or Bangor school district was above a certain size, it was, by definition, efficient,” Bowen said. “I don’t see any reason why those larger districts should be left untouched.”