So what ultimately happened with school consolidation?
In all the furor surrounding the legislature’s $53 million tax day tax increase, it may have been overlooked that even though it took them three and half months to do so, the legislature did eventually pass a bill on school consolidation. The bill that was enacted, LD 2323, contained pieces of two other bills, the original LD 1932 and LD 2280, which was one of the Committee’s own bills.
LD 1932, as everyone will recall, was the Education Committee’s original bill to enact a handful of technical changes to the consolidation law. LD 2323 enacts those changes, which include:
– Allowing local cost-sharing agreements, which was seen as the major impediment to consolidation
– Allowing minimum special education subsidy receivers to remain eligible for minimum subsidy if they join a new regional school unit
– Removing the 2 mill minimum requirement, which was resulting in major cost shifts.
The new LD 2323 also includes some of the elements added to LD 1932 by the Education committee, such as:
– Allowing an exception for some units of 1,000 to 1,200 students (in isolated rural areas);
– Clarifying the roles and responsibilities of local school committees and regional school unit boards and the relationship between the two (local school committees can remain, but have limited influence and no budget authority)
– Allowing school property to remain in local hands if agreements are worked out regarding maintenance, etc.
Before being passed, LD 2323 was amended by House Amendment “G”, which included language from LD 2280 and which makes largely inconsequential technical changes to the law. It does move the final deadline for voter approval of a consolidation plan from November of this year to January 30 of 2009, which now represents the final date by which voters must approve a reorganization plan before penalties take effect. It also makes some technical changes to the budget validation process, but does nothing to postpone or exempt towns from the budget referendum requirement. All Maine voters will get the chance to approve their local school with a referendum vote.
To deal with the whole “school union” issue, which sunk to original LD 1932, LD 2323 contains this provision:
“The bill authorizes the Commissioner of Education to approve plans for alternative organizational structures under the school reorganization law. To approve a plan for an alternative organizational structure, the commissioner must find that the plan will satisfy the purposes of the school reorganization law including: consolidation of system administration; consolidation of administration of special education, transportation and business functions; adoption of a core curriculum; and adoption of consistent school policies, school calendars and collective bargaining agreements.”
In other words, rather than proscribe acceptable alternate consolidation arrangements, such as school unions, the law gives the commissioner the authority to approve some variation of them, as long as the plan meets with her approval. Though this vests quite a bit of authority with the commissioner, it may, at the end of the day, be the best solution given the wide variety of school structures in place all over the state.
So what to make of all this? The changes in LD 2323 do indeed make the law more workable and give it quite a bit more flexibility than was originally in put in place. The budget validation process remains in place, which is the one element of the law that many of us believe holds any hope of generating savings for taxpayers. School choice remains protected as well, though that is not stopping merging districts from making it an issue.
Voters should watch carefully what happens next. With the legislature now mercifully in adjournment, the focus returns to the local level, where the reorganization committees now head back to work. They have from now until January 30 of next year to get some kind of reorganization plan approved.