School mergers in Maine hit snags

massachusetts officials looking to consolidate some of the state’s school districts need only look north to Maine to see how tough that job will be.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci first floated his district consolidation proposal in January 2007, saying the state’s cost of school administration shouldn’t continue to grow as the student population shrinks. So he called for the state’s decentralized network of 290 school systems — ranging in size from the five-student Monhegan Plantation on the Gulf of Maine to the 7,000-student Portland system — to become just 26 districts.

But smaller school districts are not fading away quietly. The consolidation bill that eventually passed in June 2007 called for 80 districts, and now, with just a couple months before the big reduction is slated to take effect, it looks like 220 districts will remain.

“Of those plans that failed, they failed for a reason,” says state Sen. David Trahan. “Those communities do not want the state of Maine dictating what they do with their education system.”

Trahan, a Republican from Waldoboro in Maine’s Mid-Coast region, actively supported a successful effort last year to gather the more than 55,000 signatures needed to bring a consolidation repeal question before voters this fall. He is also sponsoring one of five repeal proposals pending in the Legislature this session.

“It’s too sweeping. It’s too broad. It’s one size fits all,” Trahan says of the consolidation law, “and I just don’t think it fits in the state of Maine.”

In the more than 120 districts where voters turned down consolidation plans, schools will bear the penalties written into law for noncompliant school units: reductions in state education subsidies.

Fayette, for example, is a small district near Lewiston where the 130 students attend school in town until sixth grade and then choose among a handful of neighboring districts’ schools. Fayette previously split from a larger district, and in January it rejected a proposal to merge with two nearby school systems.

“Towns like Fayette rejected consolidation because it did not offer an opportunity for efficiency to save taxpayer dollars,” town manager Mark Robinson says. The town now faces a $39,000 cut in state aid for the coming school year.

The Maine approach to school consolidation relies more on sticks than carrots to work, although a lot of latitude was left to school districts. Existing school systems choose their own partners, no schools close as a result of the mergers, and communities accustomed to school choice can maintain it. Geographically isolated districts, as well as those with 2,500 or more students, are exempt from the mandate.

For the Maine Department of Education, implementing the law has led to some awkward realizations. Under one of the law’s snarls, for example, 17 districts that voted in favor of consolidating found they couldn’t because their merger partners rejected the arrangement. Those districts now face the same penalties as districts that opposed mergers.

The exemption of districts with more than 2,500 students, such as Portland, has also split Maine in two. Districts in the state’s sparsely populated, rural northern reaches found themselves scrambling to set up partnerships and bring them before voters. Districts in more heavily populated southern Maine found they could maintain the status quo while complying with the sweeping state mandate.

Massachusetts officials are moving more slowly on consolidation. They are making the case for it not by arguing that savings will result, but by arguing that bigger is better. J.D. LaRock, policy director at the state’s Executive Office of Education, says academic achievement will be the primary motivation behind any regionalization proposal.

LaRock, citing eighth-grade test data from 2008, says that districts of a certain size produce stronger academic results. “When you look at the exams, you see a clear trend that moderately larger districts do better,” he says, citing school systems of about 5,000 students. “These central offices have greater capacity to support their schools in the way we want.”

According to LaRock, who says his office is working on a bill to be introduced “over the coming months,” a regionalization proposal for the Bay State will be open to a variety of approaches.

“It may be more complicated in some parts of the state as opposed to others,” he says. “In some cases, two communities might want to join. In some cases, it might be more.”

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The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in February awarded nearly $275,000 in planning grants to 12 districts considering regionalization. If the districts consolidate, the mergers would chip away at Massachusetts’s network of 328 school districts — including 284 with fewer than 5,000 students — and, LaRock says, provide key insights for the rest of the state.

Matthew Stone is a freelance writer living in Sidney, Maine.