August 22, 2019

Why the school consolidation bill died

The Bangor Daily News’ April 24-25 editorial on the school consolidation bill criticized House members who opposed the bill’s passage and implored the Senate to “do a more reasoned review of the bill than did their counterparts in the House.”

As one who sat through, and participated in, nearly two hours of floor debate on this bill, I can say with some degree of authority that the members of the House debated the bill fully and with more “reasoning” than the BDN editorial suggests. Supporters of the administration, trying to put a good face on the bill’s defeat in the House, attempted afterward to characterize opponents of the bill as having given in to unfounded fears that it would close schools and having otherwise “misinterpreted the intentions” of the bill.

The BDN appears to have bought right in to this, and dismissed the legitimate concerns of the three-fifths of the House membership, from both sides of the aisle, who voted the bill down.

Just what were these legitimate concerns? First, that the bill is needlessly complicated. To regionalize, school districts must submit extensive plans to the Education Department, projecting savings out years and years and must then deliver those savings or face penalties. The department reserves the right to rule on both the authorization of these regionalized districts, the judgment of success, and the assessment of penalties. There is no appeals process.

Second, the bill ratchets up incentive money as a district grows in size, not in efficiency. In this bill, bigger is rewarded, not better. A school system that is making the most with its resources right now gets nothing. Some school systems may be able to win a “consulting school” designation, which would give them some incentives as long as they agree to mentor other systems, but the standards by which one is to be judged worthy of “consulting” do not appear in the bill.

Third, the bill limits representation within regionalized districts, limiting school boards to 11 members unless the commissioner grants special dispensation to make them larger. A small district that currently enjoys total control over its schools would face becoming a minority voice in a larger district, effectively losing power over what were formerly its own schools. And this thing is supposed to encourage regionalization?

Fourth, the bill does nothing to address the cause of rising school costs. Most superintendents will tell you that the primary drivers of rising costs for schools are the same as those for small businesses. Schools must contend with climbing costs for things like health insurance, workers’ compensation, liability insurance, compliance with state and federal mandates and many other costs over which they have little or no control. Maine’s near highest-in-the-nation cost of doing business is costing towns and schools as well, though you hear little about this from the administration and nothing about it in the bill before us.

Lastly, the BDN editorial got it right when it said “even without [state incentive] money, there are incentives for districts to share services and they are already doing so” (emphasis mine). The fact is that school boards and superintendents across the state are already using novel ways to save money. The bill would force districts to go on bended knee before the Education Department to do what they are already doing now.

What is needed here is not more state bureaucracy of the kind imposed by this bill. What we need is a simple vehicle to help districts to work together and share ideas about how to cut costs, and a serious effort on the state level to deal with the “cost-of-business costs” that are the true drivers of climbing school spending. A model may be found in the Intergovernmental Advisory Group created by the Regionalization Committee’s bill, which is a grass-roots coalition of leaders from all three levels of government that works to find ways to cooperate and to cut costs.

I suppose, though, it is easier to characterize elected leaders as being shortsighted, self-interested and in other ways without sufficient enlightenment to propose “reasoned” alternatives like this. In this case, though, the BDN is the one in the dark. The House was right to defeat the bill by a wide margin and was right to demand a better solution.

Stephen Bowen is a Republican from Rockport who represents House District 63 (Camden and Rockport) in the Maine Legislature.

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