The Legislature’s Education Committee voted last week to recommend that school districts that refuse to consolidate not suffer financial penalties for the next two years.

There are differing opinions about the wisdom of that decision, with some believing that the education committee, in doing so, has set a poor example for the rest of the state. Others maintain that the committee is reflecting the ongoing debate, and even struggle, by communities to come to terms with a legislative act that practically all agree was not terribly well considered, nor executed.

The Legislature and Gov. John Baldacci approved the 2007 act that required Maine’s multiple school districts to reorganize in an effort to save money on administrative costs. The Department of Education plugged the act, saying reorganization would also help build “equitable educational opportunities, rigorous academic programs, uniformity in delivering programs, a greater uniformity in tax rates, more efficient and effective use of limited resources, preservation of school choice and maximum opportunity to deliver services in an efficient manner.”

There has been a lot of debate on the issue and the jury is still out on whether reorganization and consolidation will save significant amounts of money. School districts and taxpayers continue to watch as the state cuts even more from what it distributes to the schools, and the burden of funding education falls even more to those who own property and conscientiously send a check twice a year to the town office or city hall.

As the reorganization law has been implemented, it continues to evolve. On Feb. 11, Maine’s education commissioner said there will be more flexibility allowed for special and unique circumstances, and the education committee agreed to it in concept.

For Regional School Unit 13, Maine School Administrative District 40, and the islands, this is a moot point since they have finished the process. But for the five towns of Appleton, Camden, Hope, Lincolnville and Rockport, which are about to embark on another round of talks on how to reorganize as a unified school district, there lies a glimmer of hope that the terms of reorganizing will financially work for taxpayers.

There is little dispute that the cost of public education has spiraled out of control over the past decade and that we are all paying the price. The cause lies just as much at the local level, with taxpayers blithely approving ever-increasing budgets, as it does with the state, which began mandating more specialized educational programs while reducing its funding for schools. Unfunded mandates began to eat away at school budgets, and the local taxpayer picked up the cost. As property values increased, those towns with higher property values received less and less from the state.

The Maine Department of Education has created a monster of a funding system full of quirky results, but it cannot continue to pile on costs, such as penalties for those communities still going through the process of reorganizing. If the state is trying to save money, it should be working to save everyone money. With the jobless rate so high, with the retired living on lean income, and with the economic outlook remaining bleak, this is not the time to slap more financial pain on local communities.