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Time to give up on school consolidation?

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Time to give up on school consolidation?

Since its passage in 2007, Maine's school consolidation law has been the subject of much debate, from parents at school board meetings to lawmakers in Augusta. Now Mainers will decide whether or not to repeal the law, which appears as Question 3 on the Nov. 3 ballot.

The law was designed to reduce administrative costs by consolidating smaller school districts into larger regional school units, or RSUs. For larger cities, the impact was minimal, because their schools already met the minimum student thresholds necessary for compliance. But more rural towns have had to work with neighboring communities to form the new units and work out administrative downsizing amongst themselves.

Cash penalties were also written into the law for towns not in compliance, but the Legislature waived implementing them for one year to await the results of the repeal vote.

Proponents say the new law saves money and provides better educational opportunities for Maine students, while detractors argue the promised savings haven't materialized and that it usurps local control of schools.

"This is just a smarter way to do business. I don't think it's a lot more complicated than that," said Colleen Quint of Minot, who was a member of her local consolidation planning committee. "There is less administrative overhead, and there are more options for kids."

Quint said as a result of consolidation with Mechanic Falls and Poland, Minot students now have access to music, health and foreign language programs that haven't been offered in recent years due to budget cuts.

"That never would have happened if we had not gone through the consolidation process," she said.

Newell Augur, campaign manager for the group "No on 3" working to maintain the law, said currently 85 percent of Maine students are going to school districts in compliance with the law.

"Repealing this law is the worst thing for the state to do, at this time when we need to start to get serious about finding these kinds of savings and opportunities for efficiencies in state and local government," he said, adding that the law is expected to save about $37 million by the end of this year, according to state estimates.

"It's safe to say there are tens of millions of dollars at stake every year, and that's hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of just the next 20 years," he said.

But Dick Dyer of Winthrop, a former teacher who worked to get the repeal question on the ballot, said those savings haven't materialized.

"We can't afford these promises," he said. "It's saved us about $1.6 million so far, and I know it's cost the state more than $4 million to implement so far. The intent of the law was to save significant money and that just hasn't worked out."

Dyer said the town of Winthrop has already teamed with neighboring communities to share transportation and special education services and decided against joining an RSU because it found there were no further savings to be had.

"In fact, there was a risk of losing money," he said, referencing issues with debt service and teacher salaries. "More importantly, the way these RSUs are being structured, a lot of communities feel like they don't really get a say in that school budget or what happens educationally."

Dyer said consolidation of services and saving money is a good thing, but the state should have used incentives rather than penalties.

"One of the great things about this law is that it forced communities in ways they never would have done to really look at how to save money," he said. "But there's far more merit to repealing this law as it exists and working very hard with the Legislature to come up with an alternative."

Rebekah Metzler is a staff writer at the Sun Journal in Lewiston. She can be reached at rmetzler@sunjournal.com.