ARUNDEL, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- Five years ago, following long debate, the Maine Legislature passed what was called the School Consolidation Law.
The school law was a major goal for then-Democratic Governor John Baldacci, who wanted to dramatically reduce the number of school districts and superintendent in Maine to save money. The law created dozens of new districts, called Regional School Units or RSU's, and required towns to join them or face a penalty. Some communities happily formed RSU's, while others joined grudgingly.
Now, three years later, the penalties for not following the mandate have been removed. As a result, a number of towns around Maine are seeking to withdraw from their RSU's. Some want to join other units or districts that seem a better fit. Other communities simply want to be independent, and go it alone. The Maine Department of Education says at least twelve towns are at some stage on the complex withdrawal process, and that a number of others have started to discuss the possibility of withdrawal. Specific details vary from town to town, but there's general agreement that two primary issues are involved: money and local control.
The town of Arundel, in RSU 21, is an example. Arundel was a stand-alone school district prior to consolidating with Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. Residents had a contract to send their middle school students to Thornton Academy Middle School in Saco. The RSU has its own middle school in Kennebunk, and the school board found it could save money by sending all middle schoolers there. But Arundel residents were furious at the idea of ending their contract. They voted overwhelmingly against the proposal. In April, townspeople voted more than two-to-one to leave the RSU, and a special committee is now developing those plans.
Maine Education Commissioner Steve Bowen says he believes the law has worked well in some communities, and has resulted in cost savings and improvements to education. But in other places there have been ongoing battles over cost sharing formulas and tax burden, and cases where (usually) smaller communities have complained the larger communities dominate decision-making. Bowen says he expects more withdrawals in the future, as the financial pressures on schools and taxpayers increase.