Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
A year ago, I wrote more than 2,000 words asking whether states can force local governments to consolidate. Next month, the people of Maine may offer a one-word answer: no.
In Maine, as in many places, state officials view local government to be inefficiently fragmented. Does ever town really need its own school district with its own superintendent and team of administrators?
Since the state provides a lot of education funding (and since state officials get blamed when property taxes to fund schools go up), Gov. John Baldacci felt entitled to push consolidation. In 2007, he succeeded in persuading legislators to pass a law that requires school districts to meet minimum enrollment requirements. If they don't (and if they don't consolidate with their neighbors to meet the requirements), districts face financial penalties.
But in Maine, as in many places, there's tremendous opposition to consolidation. Many people value local control. Why should someone have to drive 50 miles just to go to a school board meeting?
Plus, there are plenty of questions about whether consolidation actually saves money. When districts merge, that means salary structures have to merge, which can mean that schools end up spending more. Dozens of districts in Maine have rejected consolidation proposals, despite the pressure from the state.
That's the backdrop to next month's vote: A ballot measure that would repeal the 2007 school consolidation law. Baldacci is fighting to preserve one of his signature initiatives. The Bangor Daily News has more on the vote.
What's very exciting about Maine this fall is that, while school consolidation has been a tense, longstanding political debate in the state, the issue is at most the fourth most controversial topic on the ballot (at least from the perspective of a national observer). Maine also will be voting on gay marriage, medical marijuana and a taxpayer bill of rights.
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