Parties on both sides of Question 3 are deadlocked on the best way to efficiently fund public education in the state of Maine.
Question 3 on Maine’s Nov. 3 ballot would repeal a law requiring school districts to consolidate. The law requires most school districts with fewer than 2,500 students to consolidate with surrounding districts to form Regional School Units. Very rural and island districts are exempt.
The consolidation law was controversial when it was passed, and the debate over Question 3 has been heated. Advocates for “no” on 3 have accused opponents of misleading voters.
Skip Greenlaw, head of the Maine Coalition to Save Schools, which advocates voting “yes” on Question 3, said he is not opposed to school consolidation in general, just mandatory consolidation.
“I agree with the governor that we cannot maintain the level of spending at the state level on education. That’s very clear,” Greenlaw said.
“I think it’s probably premature for either side to say either that there is no savings or there’s a lot of savings because I don’t really know … until the end of the year when you take a look at what has happened all year long,” Greenlaw said.
Greenlaw said repealing the law would not require the RSUs to de-consolidate.
“We’re not opposed to RSUs that are successfully going forward,” Greenlaw said. According to Greenlaw, Maine’s commissioner of education told the legislative education committee the current RSUs could be made into School Administrative Districts, which existed under the old law.
“The communities can stay consolidated if they want to, but there are a number of communities that want to withdraw from the districts,” Greenlaw said.
Newell Augur, campaign manager for Maine People for Improved Education, which advocates voting “no” on Question 3, disagreed. He said language allowing districts to stay consolidated would have to be approved by the legislature, which isn’t assured.
“Skip’s making a guarantee he can’t back up,” Augur said. “And let’s remember, he’s the one who drafted the question, and he drafted it for the complete repeal.”
“Skip wants to preserve 290 school districts in Maine. That’s way more than we can afford. And it doesn’t produce good results for our kids,” Augur said.
Greenlaw admitted the initiative isn’t perfect. “I didn’t foresee all the complications — no one can foresee all the complications when they put a petition like this together,” he said. But, he thinks the issue would be relatively easy to deal with.
“I think that problem is absolutely overblown,” Greenlaw said. “It can be done without too much destruction.”
Augur pointed to RSUs that have successfully consolidated and saved money. He cited four RSUs that have collectively saved $2.5 million through consolidation and said others can do the same. He said the passage of Question 3 would result in the state losing $25 million to $30 million, a number he didn’t explain.
“We will be losing a number of significant improvements in the classroom, and specifically in the high schools where we’ve seen … expansion of programs like advanced placement and gifted and talented programs in Maine high schools, and we’ll be throwing that away as well,” Augur said. Greenlaw said Question 3 would not undo savings.
“I do not understand where the opposition is saying that it’s going to cost the state money. If there’s money that’s been saved, so be it. It’s not going to all of a sudden disappear because the law gets repealed,” Greenlaw said.
Greenlaw said consolidation can result in increased salary costs for teachers because of collective bargaining.
“The reason why 200 communities voted against consolidation is because the cost of collective bargaining is exceeded [by] any savings,” Greenlaw said. “It’s sort of common sense, which Maine people have a lot of. Why would they vote for something that costs more than it saves?”
Maine Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, sits on No on 3’s letterhead committee. She said the consolidation law does not force any districts into unwelcome partnerships nor does it allow schools to close.
Orono has formed an RSU with Veazie and Glenburn.
“The state did not force any two towns or districts to come together, but rather set parameters around what a new district might look like,” Cain said.
Cain said the state found 2,500 students per district to be the most efficient size for a school district.
“If you got bigger than that, you ended up becoming less efficient on a per-student basis, or if you were smaller than that, the next level of efficiency down actually was 1,200, which is why that number was chosen. It was not random,” Cain said.
“Maine has a long history of every town having its own school and its own superintendant. That is as emotional as it is anything else. The reality is that Maine, population-wise, looks a lot different 50 some-odd years ago, which was the last time school districts were restructured,” Cain said.