Tuell: Baldacci Signs One-Year Delay on School Penalties

Baldacci Signs One-Year Delay on School Penalties
Local Elected Officials Laud Move, Pushing Hard for Law’s Repeal

By Will Tuell
Downeast Coastal Press, June 24, 2009

Gov. John Baldacci ended weeks of speculation June 19 when he signed a bill delaying penalties on school districts that have failed to reconfigure under the state's controversial school reorganization law. The bill, LD 285, received bipartisan support in the Legislature, securing veto-proof two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate before state legislators concluded their 2009 session the week before.

“I have decided to sign this legislation, which will delay penalties for one year for school districts that have not reorganized,” said Baldacci in a press release. “This delay will give those districts working in good faith toward restructuring time to complete their work.”

Sen. Kevin Raye (R-Perry), an opponent of the move from less local control and greater state control of public education, welcomed the governor's decision, but took Baldacci to task for supporting what many see as a failed law.

“With the citizen-initiated repeal referendum looming in November, well over two-thirds of the Legislature supported the penalty delay,” said Raye in a June 20 e-mail. “I think that sent a clear message to Gov. Baldacci, and I am pleased that he signed it. But I am disappointed by the governor’s continued enthusiasm for the underlying consolidation law, and his view of the delay as only an opportunity for communities to come into compliance with a badly flawed law that is unworkable in many areas of the state.”

Baldacci contended that although 88 percent of students statewide are in consolidated units—a figure that has been challenged by critics who point out that the governor is including urban areas in his figures, areas that are not affected by the new law—there is still work to be done. “We will continue to support those districts that have not complied with the law and help them transition into more sustainable administrative structures,” said Baldacci. “To that end, I have directed Education Commissioner Sue Gendron to continue efforts to facilitate administrative re-organization among the minority of districts that have not complied and to consider ways to improve the current law.”

Raye dismissed the law as a failure, urging voters statewide to repeal it at the ballot box this November. “The heavy-handed top-down approach of the current law is a failure and, if it proceeds,” Raye said, “the penalties will hurt children in the poorest areas of Maine by accelerating the shift of school funding to more affluent areas. It needs to be repealed so communities can pursue the kind of consolidation and efficiencies that make sense region by region.”

“I think it's great news,” said Rep. Howard McFadden (R-Dennysville) of the governor's decision to grant the delay during a June 20 phone interview. “It's really going to help a lot of towns [and] school districts. They've put so much on the towns. They've cut back on Tree Growth [program]. They've cut back on [municipal] revenue sharing, the Homestead tax, and then put these penalties on. It has really, really killed these towns. It's the best news I've heard for a long time.”

McFadden said that legislators across the state faced mounting pressure about school reorganization in their home districts, which ultimately led to easy passage of the penalty delay in both chambers.

“I think legislators realized what a burden it was to [school] districts by penalizing them,” he said. “I just read in the paper the other day, where Vermont is doing something similar. They're regionalizing, but they're giving out incentives like Maine did in 1957 with the Sinclair Act. So they're doing it the right way.”

“I really didn't think he would sign it,” said East Machias selectman Kenneth “Bucket” Davis. I think [people] are going to wait for repeal. The more I'm hearing throughout the state, I think there's a good chance that repeal of the law will pass, because there's a lot of places that consolidated and it didn't save them money. I've got a good feeling that possibly in November [repeal] would pass.”

Davis said that Baldacci's decision to sign the penalty delay may have kept the state, and a growing confederation of towns, from clashing over the issue in federal court, though he kept the threat of a legal challenge on the table, depending on how the vote to repeal turns out in November.

“In regards to our attorney, I'm not going to go any further with [a legal challenge] as of right now,” Davis said. “If the governor wasn't going sign this to delay the penalties, we probably would've filed in federal court. Now what I'm going to do is wait until November. I would dare say that if the referendum doesn't pass in November, [other] towns would come on board with East Machias to fight this in federal court.”

Asked whether school districts would take advantage of the extra time to reconsider reorganization, McFadden indicated that it would vary from region to region. “I think they'll look at it again,” McFadden said, adding that areas that were originally looking at forming regional school units (RSUs) would likely gravitate toward alternative organizational structures (AOSs), “and some of these units that were trying to form RSUs, I presume now will try to form AOSs, like in this [eastern Washington County] area.”

McFadden said that it would be a bad move for some communities such as East Machias to consolidate, because they've demonstrated they can succeed on their own.

“East Machias would be stupid to do anything. They've really got a good system over there. They've saved a lot of money. I give a lot of credit to Bucket Davis for the work he's done. They're better standing alone.”

McFadden also weighed in on the repeal issue, saying that proponents of the measure would have an uphill fight convincing the 36 urban areas that did not have to reorganize their school systems to vote for it.

“I'm going to be surprised if the repeal passes,” he said. “There are 36 school districts in southern Maine—the larger ones like Portland, Lewiston, Auburn, Stanford, Rumford that were exempt from the law. They're not going to vote for repeal, I believe. I'd be kind of surprised if repeal passes.”

Davis was more sanguine about the repeal’s prospects. “We need to get on the radio, the television, to encourage people to get out and vote in November to repeal this,” he said. “You know damn well the governor's going to try to make sure that that doesn't pass. He's very nervous about it. I think that's what we've got to do—get some advertisements out to the people of Maine. This law is so damned flawed, it's a joke.”

Davis pointed out that most local communities have consolidated administration and cut costs without giving up their governance structure.

“In the beginning, when the governor was first talking about consolidation, he was strictly [talking about] administration,” said Davis. “I didn't have an issue with that. I thought that was fine. So, with all the towns that were supposed to be in the [AOS] with us, they all voted no, but they came back to the table and agreed to share [a] superintendent's [office]. The problem I have is when you have one mega-board controlling everything with one check coming in, you're right back into an SAD, [only] a bigger one.”

The Senate voted 32-3 in favor of the penalty delay, while the House voted 110-36 for the measure. Had Baldacci opted to do nothing within 10 days of the bill's passage, legislators would have had to go back into session in order to overrule the governor's pocket veto.