Will Tuell: Secretary of State Certifies School Law Repeal Petition

Secretary of State Certifies School Law Repeal Petition
Supt. Porter, Selectman Davis Worry That Competing Measures Will Water Down Vote

By Will Tuell
[Downeast Coastal Press, March 3, 2009]

Maine Secretary of State Mathew Dunlap announced February 23 that organizers of a citizens' initiative seeking to repeal the state's school reorganization law had successfully gathered 58,193 signatures—about 3,000 more than needed to secure the issue's place on either the June or November ballot, should the Legislature and Governor John Baldacci fail to repeal the law outright.

“It's something we've been waiting for for many months, so it was really exciting to get the news,” said Union 102/East Machias Superintendent Scott Porter in a phone interview February 27. “It's exciting to have the signatures verified. Either the Legislature will repeal it themselves or they'll vote to send it off to the people.”

The statewide petition drive began months after the law was passed in June 2007, and concluded last October when Maine Coalition to Save Schools organizer Lawrence “Skip” Greenlaw submitted roughly 66,000 signatures for verification. Dunlap's office had until this past Monday, February 23, to complete the process and rule whether the petition could go forward. The petition required 55,087 valid signatures for further consideration. About 8,100 were rejected for various reasons, while the remaining 58,100 were validated.

“I think it's great. It puts a lot of pressure on,” said East Machias Selelctman Kenneth “Bucket” Davis, who coordinated the signature gathering Down East. “If it wasn't for this petition drive we wouldn't be where we're at right now. This has definitely [created] some leverage for us. I truly think there's more and more legislators that are on board with us now than there was before. Keep in mind that there's about 65 new legislators, and we really didn't know anything about them until [recently]. There is some hope for us because it appears as though we've got a lot more representatives supporting us.”

Even so, the likelihood of the Legislature repealing the law with a veto-proof majority is remote, and, given the governor's steadfast defense of the law, a ballot measure is all but certain according to both Davis and Porter.

“I think it's critical when that vote takes place—whether it's in June or November,” said Porter. “and we are taking action politically to try move that toward a June vote. I think there's going to be some bond issues [in June]. The thing is, if it's voted in June and it's not successful, the Legislature will still be in session so we could move some other bills forward.”

The Legislature also has the option of passing any number of “competing measures” which would join the law's repeal on the ballot.

“The biggest concern right now,” said Porter, “is that if the Legislature acts on any of the consolidation bills it will end up being a competing measure on the ballot with [repeal] and that would kind of split up the vote, and we don't think that would be a good thing.

Both Davis and Porter contended that the more competing measures are offered, the greater chance there would be of splitting the vote between repeal and each of the alternatives.

“It splits up the vote as well if you have [competing measures].” Said Porter. “We're not supporting that as the Maine Small Schools Coalition, the people locally here don't seem to want that to happen. I don' think it would be a good move.”

Davis agreed. “One concern that I do have,” said Davis, “is the competing measures. Let's say that you've got more than two—three or whatever—competing measures. When that comes up for a vote, you've got to keep in mind that you need better than 50 percent [for anything to pass]. It's all right if you've got just one competing measure, but if you're going to have two or three [or more], you could split up on how the votes come out, and then we really would have a mess.”

Davis added that legislators may want to try to repeal the law's penalties, allow those who have already consolidated to keep their new school units intact if the law is repealed, or create an incentive program for those school units which have already consolidated.

Porter added that the Legislature would likely “roll all of the consolidation bills into one” given the high number of legislators who have submitted bills that would amend the law further.

The school reorganization law was passed as part of the FY07-08 budget in June 2007 and was amended to include alternative organizational structures (or AOS) last April.

Website for Repeal Effort

Although I know we all appreciate and value the work Brian has put into keeping track of school reorganization for the past two years at mdischools.net and its successor forum, I hope there will soon be an official "Repeal School Consolidation" website where explanations, documents, contact information and more will be posted.