Here is an update on school district consolidation in Maine. The state forced district consolidation through a legal framework that includes a series of economic carrots and sticks. Vermont should consider a similar approach.
Bangor Daily News, Jan. 28
BANGOR, Maine — At least eight of 18 proposals to consolidate school administrations into regional units were defeated at polls around the state Tuesday, according to unofficial results. Residents from Allagash to Brewer and from Deer Isle to Jackman cast ballots to sink reorganization plans in their areas. Three consolidation plans were approved to serve communities in the Old Town, Orono and Bucksport areas, according to unofficial tallies. The results on proposals in other areas were not available Tuesday night.
No matter what the voters decide, there still will be a lot of work to do, state Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin said before the polls closed Tuesday. “Some who vote no will want to go back to the drawing board,” he said. “And we’ll encourage them to do that and we’ll support them in any way we can.”
Eighteen plans to consolidate school administrations for 110 individual school districts with an estimated enrollment of 34,888 students were voted on Tuesday. Thirteen of 22 plans voted on in November and earlier this month already have been approved by voters. The state’s deadline for referendums on the proposals is Jan. 30. Those districts whose voters approved the reorganization plans Tuesday will have to work to implement their plans so that the new district will be ready to begin operations on July 1 as outlined in the consolidation law. Among the steps involved in becoming a new unit are electing a new school committee, hiring a superintendent and developing a budget for the newly formed district.
Most of the details for forming the new units are included in the plans themselves, but with five months to go before the start of the new school year, it is still a tight timeline. Connerty-Marin said the department will provide assistance for the districts to develop an educational plan for their schools. The department has created a reorganization education planning team to assist the new Regional School Units and Alternative Organizational Structures with their educational planning. “The idea is to assist them as they work together to adapt their educational systems as they bring several systems together as one,” Connerty-Marin said.
The team will include a group of facilitators headed by former Portland superintendent Mary Jane McCalmon who will be able to work with the new districts on their educational planning. Use of those facilitators is voluntary. They will be paid by the Education Department, which also will provide small $5,000 grants to the districts who use the facilitators to support the educational planning. In districts where the plan has been rejected by the voters, the planning committees may opt to try to develop a new plan. Connerty-Marin said it was unlikely that those plans will be ready for the districts to begin operating in 2009. “It’s not clear that folks who return to the table will in fact be able to begin operations by July 1, ’09,” he said. “They may be working for creation of a new district the following year. It’s a very tight timetable to be operating by July 1.”
Those districts that have rejected the reorganization plan face penalties for their failure to reorganize. The consolidation law provides for reductions in school subsidies in those districts. It is unclear how those districts will continue to operate at the beginning of the new school year. School unions would be dissolved at the end of this school year, although there has been some debate about the intent of the law and some have argued that the law prohibits only the creation of new school unions. Connerty-Marin has suggested that they will need to develop new interlocal agreements to allow them to perform some joint functions such as hiring a superintendent.
The proposals and the referendums are in response to the law passed in June 2007 requiring that the state’s 290 school districts be reorganized into approximately 80 regional school units governed by regional school boards. The law was amended by the Legislature in April 2008 to address problems some communities encountered, including issues of local control, cost-sharing, and minimum numbers of students per regional school unit, among others.