It was clear a decade ago that, through declining enrollment and steadily increasing costs, it was getting difficult for Maine’s many small school districts to deliver a comprehensive, cost-effective education.

In response, the Legislature in 2007 enacted the school consolidation law, which sought to reduce the number of school districts and allow economies of scale to cut administrative costs and funnel more money into the classroom. By 2012, consolidation had cut the number of districts from 290 to 164.

The number is now going in the opposite direction, as communities concerned more about local control than costs are exercising the opt-out clause in the law.

The problems presented by small, rural districts, however, have not changed. If Maine is going to solve them, so that students across the state all have access to the same opportunities, the state has to try something other than the forced partnerships of consolidation.

CONTROL ISSUES

It is unfortunate, though not surprising, that consolidation was not more widely embraced. The larger school districts formed through consolidation are for the most part saving money, even if the districts have not always done well in articulating that savings to the public. The districts also have been successful in combining resources across schools, to offer more programs and activities.

But even those successes have been a hard sell to residents of small towns who felt they lost a voice in the larger districts. Much of the resistance has come from communities that — understandably — don’t want to see their elementary school closed, as the district attempts to save money by shuffling students around.

That was the case in Athens, which withdrew from Madison-based School Administrative District 59 when the closing of the town’s small elementary school became a possibility. The $45,000 increase to local taxpayers this year has not made the town regret its decision.

Many other communities are coming to the same conclusion. Since the law’s opt-out clause went into effect in January 2012, 15 municipalities have voted to withdraw from their school districts.

Another 17 are in the process of withdrawing, and more still are looking into withdrawal, an onerous, 21-step process purposely meant to discourage the dissolution of consolidated districts.

The communities that withdraw will no doubt feel relief that they again have full control over school spending, and where their youngest students attend class.

LOOKING FORWARD

As student enrollments continue to fall, however, it will become more and more difficult for the smaller school districts to offer the same breadth and depth of programming the students receive in other districts in Maine.

Even communities that take part in an alternative organizational structure, an option under the law that allows towns to share resources and administration but maintain separate budgets, will find it hard in the more rural areas to support programs such as art, music and physical education. They just won’t have enough students, and the quality of education will suffer.

And though the growth of school spending in Maine has been held relatively in check, with per pupil costs rising only 4.1 percent since 2008-09, that is largely the result of the economic downturn, and it is not sustainable.

From 2002-08, per pupil spending increased an average of more than 5 percent per year. Those increases stressed school districts, particularly the smaller ones, and without some level of cooperation and consolidation, they will not be able to absorb those costs, or defray them through scale, when they return in the future.

Forcing the small districts to come together has not worked, so the state must take another tack, perhaps by taking the lead on initiatives now being worked through, expensively and separately, in each district. That could include establishing methods for teacher evaluations, and curriculum and professional development. Distance learning opportunities should increase, as well.

Also, requirements such as food service could be handled on a regional basis, particularly in the less-populated areas of the state.

Otherwise, the pressures will continue to mount on small school districts throughout Maine, and soon the loss of some local control will be the least of their worries.

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