School consolidation mandate is unconstitutional

Rep. Henry Joy, Special to The County
17 years ago

In the aftermath of the 123rd Legislature’s first session, one can only wonder what has happened to the strong, independent nature that has been a hallmark of Mainers since the first rugged individuals settled this state.     The Legislature and Governor Baldacci have taken action which has the potential to destroy public education and ultimately the small towns that have traditionally made Maine a great place to live. I expected a storm of outrage to arise over the forced “regionalization” of schools, but with the exception of a few letters to the editor, people seem to have meekly accepted this edict handed down from Augusta.
Will we see the same sheep-like reaction when the governor submits his forced consolidation of towns? That’s what he pledged in his inauguration speech – regionalization of schools and towns – as he blamed municipalities for the high costs of government. Ironically, this pronouncement came from a governor who recently presented and signed into law a budget that increased spending by nearly $500 million.
A close look at how this school regionalization scheme unfolded reveals a shocking contempt for the Maine Constitution as the “powers that be” ran roughshod over Maine’s cherished political customs. We find, for example, that the governor violated the separation of powers of the three branches of government when he included a major policy matter in the budget. Establishing policy is the job of the Legislative branch of government – the House and the Senate. The governor, as chief executive, decided he didn’t particularly care about that and inserted the school consolidation mandate directly in the budget. When some of us requested that the consolidation piece be removed from the budget and voted on separately, we were ignored.
The Education Committee, with jurisdiction over education policy, worked many long hours trying to make the issue a workable law for Maine education. Their efforts, however, did not meet the dictatorial mandates of the forced consolidation. In an unprecedented action, the Appropriations Committee, which has no oversight of education policy, created a subcommittee out of thin air to complete the plan.
The Rural Caucus, which is supposedly dedicated to the interests of rural Maine, then took up the issue at early-morning meetings. For a time, the caucus stood united in opposition to school consolidation, aware of the threat to small-town Maine. But eventually the caucus cracked when members began making such statements as, “We’ve got to come out of this with something.” Another statement made on the floor of the House during debate on the budget reflected the prevailing attitude: “We have done nothing to address consolidation since the Sinclair Act of the 50s.” No discussion was given to that remark regarding cost savings or academic improvement. Instead, it stood as an unassailable endorsement of consolidation and regionalization.
So powerful was the consolidation steamroller that hardly anyone even noticed when it crushed the Maine Constitution. It was obvious from the start that the majority party did not want only their fingerprints on a budget that included the regionalization proposal. They knew the thing was radioactive, so they wanted some “cover” from Republicans. Therefore, a simple majority budget was not considered for passage prior to March 31st, which would have allowed the required 90 days for the bill to become law, in time for the start of the fiscal year.
Once that deadline passed, the budget became an emergency issue. This is where the plot thickens. As emergency legislation, it had to abide by procedures made clear in the Maine Constitution – Article IV, Section 16. Here’s the actual language: “An emergency bill shall include only such measures as are immediately necessary for the preservation of public peace, health or safety; and shall not include (1) an infringement of the right of home rule for municipalities, (2) a franchise or a license to a corporation of an individual to extend longer than one year, or (3) provision for the sale or purchase or renting for more than 5 years of real estate.”
If we consider this definition of emergency legislation, we can readily see that the education measure has nothing to do with the preservation of peace, health or safety. It is, however, a clear infringement on home rule of municipalities. As such, a budget containing this scheme is unconstitutional.
At the beginning of every legislative session, all legislators and the governor take an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Maine. When the vote was taken on the budget, only 29 representatives and seven senators voted to uphold the Maine Constitution. Of the 29 representatives, 25 were Republicans and four were Democrats. The rest apparently either never bothered to even read the Constitution, or if they did read it, they didn’t remember what they had read.
The actions of Maine’s Legislative and Executive branches with regard to education do not inspire confidence. First, they passed an unconstitutional law (the budget). They also passed a law to discriminate against students who live in the unorganized towns by requiring them to pay more for the cost of their education than students who reside in organized towns.
Furthermore, in the unconstitutional law they set the state up for class action lawsuits by stipulating that the Maine Department of Education can withhold funds from schools that do not choose to regionalize. As soon as the state’s contribution to education falls below 55 percent, the state is in violation of the law.
Finally, one wonders who will handle the enforcement of regionalization. The only place where regionalization worked for any length of time was in the former Soviet Union, and they had the KGB to enforce it. Who will take the role of the KGB in Maine?
State Rep. Henry Joy (R-Crystal), a seventh-term legislator, is a retired educator.