Susan Gendron, commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, is asking school superintendents for advice on repealing costly mandates, without harming the quality or delivery of education in the classroom.

One idea we’re sure Gendron will hear is to forgo district consolidation, a bone of contention since introduced. Though some regions have embraced the new school units, many others have not.

In some cases, it’s been reported, those tasked with assembling new regional units did so half-heartedly because they either disagreed with the policy or thought it might be overturned by citizen petition.

(It still might.)

Yet consolidation is needed. Maine’s student population is falling without a correlative decrease in educational costs. Plus, the state – also by virtue of a citizen petition – must statutorily pay 55 percent of those costs.

(Another bone of contention.)

In budget straits last year, lawmakers griped about the 55 percent, enacted under LD 1, for failing to give the state flexibility to deal with deficits. As the budget hole grows deeper, this gripe could likely flare into full-fledged revolt.

As the majority source of school funding, the state should influence how the money is spent. Hence consolidation, which is the exercising of that power. But consolidation has proven unpopular and could be subject to repeal by referendum.

It’s a situation ripe for compromise. So, in the spirit of Gendron’s appeal, here’s our suggestion:

The Legislature should delay/suspend implementation of district consolidation, if schools – and most important, the school unions – offer their political support for delaying/suspending the 55 percent mandate of LD 1.

This would benefit both sides. The state would get the budget flexibility they say LD 1 now prevents, while school districts could get more time to deal with what they say is a costly mandate.

Neither benchmark should go away, though. Both should return when financial conditions permit.

Those districts that followed the law and consolidated, in the meantime, should receive some fiscal benefit for their efforts. After all, the districts who voted against consolidation would have been liable for fiscal penalty.

As for the will of voters, it would be a wash: LD 1 and the repeal of consolidation were/are the results of citizen-initiated efforts. The state and schools could still honor these sentiments while meeting their ends.

Otherwise, as budgets worsen, superintendents and officials will scrounge the margins – cutting field trips, textbooks, art supplies, swelling class sizes or trimming staffs – to make ends meet. It’s the due diligence deeded from budget constraints, but it could cheapen the educational environment.

Bigger ideas are needed to not only cut spending, but to maintain quality.

Maybe swapping a delay of LD 1 for a delay of consolidation could accomplish both.

Anyway, Commissioner Gendron, that’s our suggestion.

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