Out of 13 bills aimed at reducing or eliminating penalties to school districts that did not comply with the state’s consolidation law, two remain under discussion in the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.

School Administrative District 28 and the Five Town Community School District have paid penalties for each year that they have not been in compliance with the law. Proposed changes would eliminate penalties beginning in 2012, and renew a fund to help districts such as SAD 40, that were exempt from the mandate, find ways to team up to save money.

LD 139, “An Act To Eliminate the Penalty for Schools That Did Not Reorganize,” would do exactly as the bill’s title suggests, by eliminating penalties to school administrative units that do not conform to the mandate.

LD 385, “An Act To Amend the School Administrative Unit Consolidation Laws,” would also amend the laws governing school reorganization to eliminate the penalties set forth for nonconforming administrative units. According to the website at mainelegislature.org, it would also eliminate a provision that gives the commissioner of education final approval of new regional school units and eliminates the requirement that a school must join a conforming school administrative unit within two years of leaving an alternative organizational structure.

Department of Education Communications Director David Connerty-Marin said April 26 that of the bills that will not go forward, many called for similar changes to the law.

A few of the bills only applied to one community or district.

Connerty-Marin said the LePage administration did not want to take school choice away from communities.

In testimony before the committee April 8, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said the department supported “regionalization as a way to save money and improve educational services, but [did not] feel as though the formal consolidation of school administrative units is absolutely necessary for those regional savings and service enhancements to be realized.” Bowen said the administration supported “the creation of regional collaboratives of [school administrative units] and the expansion of existing ones, as well as the creation and expansion of collaborative arrangements between SAUs and other governmental units such as municipalities and counties.”

Bowen calls for dedicated funds for cooperating districts

“In order to encourage regionalization of this type, we support a re-creation of the Fund for Efficient Delivery of Education Services, which was a component of the same citizen’s initiative that created the 55 percent state share mandate,” Bowen told the committee. He said the fund was intended to help finance efforts to regionalize the provision of educational services by providing planning grants and other financial support to governmental units that wished to work together, on a voluntary basis, to pursue regionalization initiatives.

Bowen said the administration was proposing to set aside a certain amount of funds from the state’s general purpose aid to education account to finance regionalization efforts.

“We propose that the state commit $1.5 million during 2012-2013 school year toward funding the fund,” he said. Bowen described this as roughly the amount of the penalties for this coming year and said all districts, whether or not they have complied with the law, should have equal access to the fund.

“Districts that have yet to comply with the law will have access to funds to continue efforts to build regional capacities, while those districts that did comply will be able to expand regionalization efforts even further,” said Bowen.

Connerty-Marin said the fund would help districts that do not want to consolidate work together to create efficiencies in non-classroom departments such as transportation, food service and special education.

Administration wants no penalties for 2013

Bowen said the administration did not support the use of penalties to force compliance with the law and that many of those districts that did consolidate did so only to avoid penalties.

“The strongly held sentiment of those districts is that they complied — putting a tremendous amount of time and aggravation into the process — because of the penalties and it would be unjust to allow the districts who failed to follow the law to walk away scot-free,” he said.

“In an attempt to find some kind of middle ground that ultimately moves us a new direction, the department proposes to retain the penalties for this coming school year, and then eliminate them in the following year and beyond,” he said. Bowen said this would uphold the existing law while taking “a decisive step away from a penalty-based approach and toward an incentive-based model.”

SAD 28 and Five Town CSD Assistant Superintendent Michael Weatherwax said a delay in implementing the elimination of fines was costing local residents a lot of money.

“For us that means toughing it out with almost $400,000 in penalties,” he said April 26. He said the penalties meant the districts would either eliminate programs or go back to voters to make up the difference. “Our budget is up only slightly for next year, but it’s a burden,” he said. Weatherwax said it was disturbing that money from the Fund for Efficient Delivery of Education Services would be made available to districts that did not need to consolidate or have already done so.

Connerty-Marin said the Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs had work sessions on the bills scheduled for Tuesday afternoons, April 26 and May 3.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.