Policy Wonk: School district consolidation still a good idea

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A recent newspaper headline blared “Tax relief scarce in school consolidations.” The headline and story suggested that property tax relief was a primary purpose behind the school consolidation movement.

But it wasn’t, and it shouldn’t be.

Property tax relief is sorely needed, often promised, but seldom delivered. The major property tax relief measures of the last decade have been repealed or gutted by Republican and/or Gov. Paul LePage’s tax-cutting and spending policies.

First, a long-needed tax-reform package put in place during the Baldacci administration, reforms that would have taken pressure off the property tax, was narrowly killed by a disingenuous Chamber of Commerce- and Republican-led statewide veto.

The governor then killed the circuit breaker program that provided property tax relief for low-income families and renters, and followed that by significantly reducing revenue sharing, which also took pressure off the property tax.

In short, revenue-starved municipalities and school districts, in order to maintain programs at necessary levels, have no real choice. Property taxes in a handful of wealthy school districts remain relatively steady. In most municipalities, however, property taxes had to rise. If they didn’t, essential school programs in these communities would deteriorate. In towns with a limited property tax base and already high taxes, these programs have already deteriorated.

But school consolidation did not cause this. Bad tax and spending policies – Republican ideology – that is what’s keeping property taxes high. If these policies continue (as LePage promises they will), property taxes will rise further just to maintain the K-12 educational program we have. Don’t even talk about improving the overall quality of our schools; it’s not going to happen.

What then was school consolidation intended to do? Why does it remain a good idea today? The key factor behind consolidation was a realization that Maine school districts were overly fragmented.

In 2005, roughly 195,000 K-12 students were served by about 290 widely differentiated school districts; an average of about 675 students in each district spread over 13 grade levels. A handful of urban districts each had several thousand students, but 60 districts had fewer than 250 students (29 had fewer than 100).

Maintaining this highly fragmented system, with scarce educational dollars diverted from programs serving students to administrative overhead, needed to end.

A secondary reason for school consolidation focused more directly on the K-12 curriculum in Maine’s schools. It seems self-evident that no curriculum meeting 21st century needs of K-12 students can be maintained by a district with 250 (or fewer) students; it’s not economically possible.

Larger school districts with a larger tax base, and a larger share of state school aid, were needed. They would have the revenue stream and a sufficient number of students to justify creating and meeting the curricular needs of tomorrow’s K-12 students.

Finally, we realized that the quality of K-12 educational programs varied widely from district to district. This was due in large part to the wide disparity in property tax base, and tax effort from town to town. These disparities are not fully corrected by Maine’s equalization school aid revenues. The quality gap between rich and poor school districts was, and is, real.

Consolidation – fewer school districts, each with a larger property tax base, and each required to meet minimal tax effort requirements – is needed. This reduces the inequalities in educational opportunity that inevitably arise when you have too many districts, and rely on the property tax to fund schools in a setting where high-value properties are randomly distributed.

These justifications for school district consolidation are as real today as they were in 2007, when Maine’s school consolidation legislation was adopted. The 2007 Act called for the reduction of school districts from 290 to 80. This was probably too ambitious, and it didn’t happen. But it was the right direction of movement then, and remains so today.

By 2012, the 2007 legislation had reduced the number of districts to 227 – progress, but well short of the goal. Many school districts were exempt from consolidation mandates, and opt-out provisions for towns that were part of a newly consolidated district were put in place to placate home-rule absolutists. They valued local control of schools over the needs of K-12 students – over cost control and tax fairness.

Today, state education officials have noted that an increasing number of towns have exercised existing and new opt-out provisions: the current number of school districts is 242, 10 towns voted on opt-out provisions this month, and five towns have created opt-out exploratory committees.

In short, we are moving in the wrong direction. Soon we will almost certainly have more than 250 school districts, with all the problems that an over-fragmented school system produces.

Home-rule for many purposes is important, but it’s not more important than the needs of K-12 students across an entire state. It’s not more important than statewide tax fairness.

The Legislature has the power to insist that rational school district boundary lines be drawn, and it needs to exercise it. Whether the correct number of school districts is 100, 125 or 150 is unclear, but it is surely far fewer than 250.

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Orlando Delogu of Portland is emeritus professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law and a longtime public policy consultant to federal, state, and local government agencies and officials. He can be reached at orlando.delogu@maine.edu.

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