Critics of school district consolidation may get what they want when voters go to the polls this Nov. 6.

Relieved by the Legislature of the penalties for failure to consolidate that were part of the original 2007 state law, towns now have a means to extract themselves from the shotgun marriages they were required to form.

After the required 30 months in their consolidated districts, communities have the option to leave. On Nov. 6, residents in four towns will vote on withdrawal agreements approved by the Department of Education.

If some communities go ahead with divorces from their districts, others are likely to follow, and state officials will face a familiar problem: Is it possible to limit the growth of administrative costs in Maine schools, or will back-office operations continue to absorb resources better spent in classrooms?

Before we completely dismantle the school consolidation law, it’s worth remembering why it was passed in the first place.

In addition to spending money more efficiently, the new school districts were proposed to even out the differences in educational opportunity among districts and give students a bigger range of programs to choose from.

The central mechanism for achieving this would be reducing the number of school districts from 290 to 80, making more schools share superintendents, curriculum developers and business offices.

This was not a big government takeover, but an attempt to reduce the size and cost of government.

It is also important to remember that although there have been a number of vocal critics from the beginning of the consolidation effort, as a whole, it is popular with most Mainers. When a citizen-initiated repeal effort went before the voters in 2009, it was defeated by 58 percent to 42 percent. But the voices of the minority who don’t want to consolidate always have managed to drown out the majority.

It’s easy to see why.

You wouldn’t need a law to get school districts that are perfect matches to consolidate. In those cases, all that’s needed is a little technical support, and maybe a small incentive. But the districts that are harder to join together do need a law, and if there is no penalty for failing to merge, they will get out of the new districts or fail to form one in the first place.

And if they do, then Maine will continue to have too many small districts that offer wildly different programs, and, as a state, we will spend money on superintendents’ offices that should be spent in classrooms.

Then maybe the people who tore the system down can come up with a better idea.

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