For a little more than two years, former Stonington legislator Skip Greenlaw has been leading the charge against the state's mandatory school consolidation law that continues to be ignored by more than 100 Maine school districts.
Greenlaw says it's bad enough that the state asked communities to hold public votes on a plan they didn't want. Now, he says, those that didn't capitulate to the state's wishes will eventually have to pay a price. "The state wants to go out and penalize people for using their judgement to the tune of $6.9 million. I have said point blank, and I'll say it again, I think it's absolute blackmail."
Greenlaw spearheaded the citizen initiative that placed the question of repealing school consolidation on the November ballot. Some political watchers say the issue places rural small-town opponents of the law on a collision course with Maine's larger urban areas. More than 80 percent of Maine students are enrolled in districts that comply with the consolidation law, but Greenlaw says that's largely because they live in more populated regions of the state.
Proponents had originally hoped to reduced the state's 290 school districts down to 90. But after two years, 218 still remain. Greenlaw says the law's fine for those towns that want it, but those that don't should be able to opt out without paying a penalty.
"I guess there were three things in this law we want," he says. "We want to get away from the mandatory consolidation requirement; we want to get away from the penalties; and we want those units that have consolidated, that have found out -- like Pownal found out after they consolidated that there was a 25 percent increase in their taxes -- we want them to have an opportunity to get out of the arrangement."
"What unites all of us is that we do want a quality education, equitable and available to all students regardless of where you reside in this state," says Dana Connors, President of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which has recently decided to play a role in opposing Greenlaw's efforts to repeal the consolidation law.
Rather than throw the entire law out, Connors says the state should try to work with school districts that are having trouble achieving consolidation. He says the chamber decided to oppose the repeal movement because it believes that more consolidation -- not less -- is critical to developing cost-efficient local education systems that will produce a skilled and competitive workforce.
"Whether it's economically driven, whether it's to provide our young people the highest and the best quality education possible so -- hopefully they reside in Maine, but no matter where they reside -- they can compete and be competitive," Connors says. "That unites all of us. How we fund it is the challenge, and by keeping the eye on the student, on the classroom, and trying to generate these dollars from overhead administrative, that's what's behind our efforts, and that's what's behind this law.
But repeal supporters may face a larger challenge than the Chamber's opposition. That's because two-thirds of Maine's voters reside in the southern third of the state.
"To them it's not an issue and that's where the population lies," says Patrick Murphy, President of Strategic Marketing Services in Portland. Murphy says that because of the overwhelming degree of interest in the repeal of state's same-sex marriage law and the possible approval of two tax relief questions, arguments for and against school consolidation remain pretty much eclipsed.
"On an issue like this people probably are generally more inclined to say, 'Well, let the law say as it is, rather than let's throw it out,' because had there been a really convincing argument made to the larger part of the population, which are the people you're referring to in the bigger towns, more open areas, had there been a real case made to them why they should change something," Murphy says. "Maybe the proponents of repeal will make that case, but certainly from everything I've heard, they haven't made the case up till now.
State education officials are still not proclaiming consolidation as an economic success. When asked by a legislative panel whether the state's consolidated districts had achieved any savings, Education Commission Susan Gendron recently said it was too soon to tell.