Maine Consolidation Fight Twists Again

Last Updated: March 14, 2009

This article appeared in the February 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
Maine’s forced school district consolidation process continues down its rocky road. First passed in 2007, the law required most districts to enroll at least 2,500 students. It was amended in 2008 to make it more palatable. This year, the legislature will fuss over 30 more bills introduced to amend or gut the measure. In addition, the Secretary of State has certified the signatures on a citizen petition to repeal the law, so the legislature will have to decide whether to repeal the measure or let the voters decide its fate on election day in November. Governor John Baldacci, who is a strong proponent of the law, will have authority to veto anything the legislature does.
Meantime, Maine voters have already rejected 22 of 46 proposed regional school units involving their local districts, including 11 of the 18 most recently put before them in late January, just before the deadline for voter approval of all plans. That in itself is a measure of voter disaffection, since any district not part of an approved plan by the end of January faces financial penalties.
The penalties come in the form of reduced state aid for school administration beginning in July. The penalties are estimated at this point to total about $6 million. That money will be paid instead to districts where voters approved consolidation plans to help them with their transition to regional units. 
Despite the large number of regional plans that failed to get voter approval, Maine education officials claim that 80 percent of the state’s students are in units that comply with the law. But that includes 38 districts that were allowed to remain autonomous if they adopted an “alternative plan” showing how they would reorganize themselves to save money. These plans had to be approved by the Commissioner of Education, but not by the voters. 
Many of the communities that escaped consolidation by “alternative plans” are larger cities like Portland, college towns like Brunswick, Lewiston, and Farmington, and expensive communities along the southern coast like Biddeford, Scarborough, and Yarmouth. They are mostly property-wealthy districts with relatively low tax rates and not much appetite for sharing revenue with poorer neighbors. Though they represent only 13% of the districts, they enroll 107,000, well over half of all Maine students.
That means about two-thirds of the 159,000 students the state claims attend districts that are in compliance with the law actually attend schools covered by these alternative plans and have experienced no consolidation at all. 
The kind of consolidation envisioned by the law involves only the 55,000 students in the 24 newly formed regional units approved by voters. And many of these, according to Dr. Gordon Donaldson, a professor of education at the University of Maine, are minimal consolidations, such as a group of elementary districts and the regional high school they already send their students to forming a regional K-12 unit, or one district with nearly 2,500 students picking up a single small neighboring district to satisfy the minimum. 
That leaves over 37,000 students in about 140 rural districts that are in a state of resistance for which they will be fiscally punished. 
The resistance is centered in the “Rural Rim,” the small, rural communities between I-95 and the woods of northern Maine, the Down East region along the Atlantic coast east of Bar Harbor, and the far northeast, along the border with the Canadian province of New Brunswick. These places are small, poor, and independent.  
When Governor Baldacci proposed the law, he said he wanted to merge Maine’s 290 districts into about 80. The proposal was simple — require every district to enter into negotiations with other districts to form regional school units with at least 2,500 students each. Everyone was supposed to play. Big, small. Rich, poor.
But by the time the bill became a law and several amendments were added a year later, the consolidation stew was considerably thinner. Exemptions were provided for island and Native American districts, then for districts that were rebuked by all potential partners around them (so-called “doughnut hole” districts). Then the magic number was dropped to 1,200 for cases where the larger minimum figure was impractical due to demographic, geographic, or other reasons. It was dropped even lower to 1,000 for some very isolated districts. Efficient, high performing districts also got off the hook, though there were very few that met the standard.
Besides all those exceptions, the legislature also appeased the larger and wealthier districts — the ones who might make good partners but weren’t looking for any partnerships — by adding the provision allowing “alternative plans” in lieu of consolidation. It was a stampede of the privileged out the school consolidation door. 
So Maine consolidation has become what state mandated consolidation usually becomes — something the rich force on the poor for the sake of cutting their state aid. 
For a data-packed website on Maine school consolidation maintained by Brian Hubbell, including every vote in every district, see
Hubbell estimates that there will be only 20 central administration offices closed as a result of the consolidation to date and a saving to the state of about $1.6 million (many of the merging districts already shared superintendents). That’s a far cry from the $36.5 million Governor Baldacci estimated would be saved annually when he first made his sweeping consolidation proposal.
Read more:
Maine Voters Reject Many Consolidation Plans
Read more from the February 2009 Rural Policy Matters.