Gov. John Baldacci has offered a breather to nonconforming Maine school districts, by granting them another year to reorganize under the landmark 2007 consolidation law. With a repeal effort coming before voters in November, this delay makes sense.

If repeal is rejected, however, leniency cannot continue. School reorganization must have some teeth, as the policy — since its inception — has been negotiated and winnowed into a much weaker form, with fewer opportunities for taxpayer savings.

There must be points of no return for the districts that fail to abide by the law, which now represent, according to the Department of Education — only 15 percent of the state’s students (albeit across 111 districts). It is a vocal minority, largely concentrated in rural areas a great distance from Augusta.

About 30 percent of Maine students are within reorganized districts, the unraveling of which (under repeal) are migraines waiting to happen. What’s more painful, however, is that half of Maine students have experienced no changes whatsoever — their districts have been exempt.

This signals the law’s weakness. After exploding in 2007 with plans to consolidate Maine into 26 regional units, the proposal has eroded to its current form: 65 districts unchanged, 98 districts that consolidated into 26, 111 nonconformers. Today, opponents claim it will provide savings of only $1.6 million overall, and deride its imposition as a form of government blackmail.

There was never doubt that Augusta could institute this mandate; the state, through voter initiative, was compelled to pay 55 percent of school costs. As the majority investor into local education, it was fair for the state to exercise some influence on how the money is spent.

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Yes, this grated against the tradition of local control. But that there hasn’t been a requisite reduction in local property taxes is also a function of local control, as some 80 percent of school districts have spent beyond the levels instituted by the Essential Programs and Services framework.

EPS has been derided as broken, for failing to adequately recognize what is “essential” in school; perhaps this is the rationale for exceeding its limits. Yet a February 2008 study by Maine Revenue Services was clear: state and local governments have spent within their caps, schools have not.

So what’s changed? On the surface, it seems little. Property taxes have not decreased as expected, the savings haven’t materialized and a majority of Maine students are in districts that are unaltered. And no district has been compelled to reorganize; they either have, have not, or haven’t had to. 

If repealed, Maine returns to status quo. Maybe the districts who reorganized go back to whence they came, or maybe they simply continue. But if the policy is not repealed, what should happen next? In our opinion, the law should be enforced.

Otherwise, what’s been the point?

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