Appropriations panel takes a stab at school merger plan

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The Legislature’s Appropriations Committee is working on its own version of a school consolidation plan that would ask the state Board of Education to help draw districts of around 2,500 students each and have them merge next year.

Details of the plan are still in flux and could change. Four members of the Appropriations Committee are working on the proposal and will have to bring it back to their full membership for approval, not to mention the task of getting it by their respective Democratic and Republican caucuses.

“The state Board of Education will suggest configurations, with first priority given to natural alliances” said Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, chairman of the Appropriations Committee’s education subcommittee.

Those configurations, which will aim for 2,500 students in each district, but not necessarily mandate that size, would be settled by December of this year for implementation by the 2008-2009 school year, Cain said. If districts averaged that amount, there would be 80 created in the state.

Cain said Monday the plan will develop as it goes through reviews. “We’re trying to build consensus about what’s right for Maine,” she said.

School district consolidation hit center stage early in the year when Gov. John Baldacci proposed collapsing the state’s 290 districts down to 26. While that plan raised a firestorm, it apparently moved people to start thinking about larger districts.

It also created a financial problem for the Legislature because Baldacci booked $36 million in administrative savings in his two-year budget proposal as a result of his consolidation plan, and now legislators have to fill the hole.

The Appropriations Committee stepped in after the Education Committee failed to come up with a decisive plan despite marathon meetings. Its proposal – dubbed “feckless” in one particularly scathing newspaper opinion column – called for existing districts to work together to save money and ultimately come up with merged districts of no less than 1,200 students in two years.

The Education Committee, which broke into three subcommittees of its own, is now working on a new plan that reportedly has more teeth.

Cain said the Appropriations Committee saw the need to get involved when it was given statistics showing the state would run out of money to fund other programs if education spending wasn’t reined in.

“There’s a lot of buzz about the $36 million saved in the biennial budget, but really it is much larger than that,” Cain said. “It’s about how we’re setting a course that’s sustainable moving forward.”

The Appropriations subcommittee includes Cain; Sen. Peggy Rotundo, D-Androscoggin and chairman of the full Appropriations Committee; Sen. Karl Turner, R-Cumberland County; and, Rep. Sawin Millett, R-Waterford.

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