There’s no doubt Maine schools must look beyond the boundaries of their districts in order to offer the best education at a time of declining enrollment and stifling budget challenges. Many administrators and local elected officials are well aware of that dynamic, but still encounter significant barriers — time, money, imagination — when trying to find efficiencies through regional collaboration.

The LePage administration may have found a way around some of those barriers with a new initiative that is showing promise. It is not a game-changer — it will not save Maine from the difficulties inherent to a rural state that is struggling to maintain population — and it is not an excuse to give schools less funding than they need. But it is an important piece in the effort to improve schools and keep taxes in check.

10 GRANTS, GOOD IDEAS

The initiative, announced by Gov. Paul LePage in January, is using unspent funds earmarked for general purpose aid to education to incentivize voluntary regionalization among districts. Priority has been given to efforts that include two or more districts, are tied to a career and technical center or region, includes smaller districts, or achieve “significant and sustainable” savings that can be replicated by other districts. Districts are also encouraged to partner with municipalities, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and colleges and universities.

Seven grants totaling $3 million — with projected savings of $16 million over five years — were awarded in April. Another three grants worth $1.5 million — with projected savings of $7.3 million — were announced last week. In all, more than 60 partners are involved.

As it should be, special education, a particularly costly and inefficient area for schools, is one focus of the grants.

One recipient is a program for students in grades 6-12 with autism, emotional disabilities and other behavioral challenges across three school districts in western Maine that will allow those students to receive services close to home.

Another grant will help fund an alternative education program for at-risk kids in Bangor, with districts from much of Greater Bangor area taking part.

Other recipients use cooperation to spread educational opportunities where they otherwise may not be viable. Kennebec Valley school districts are partnering to increase opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Seven districts in western Maine are combining resources to offer improved professional development for teachers.

MONEY IN THE CLASSROOM

The specific targets of the initiatives vary, but the general aim is the same. As enrollments decreased, budgets tightened and mandates intensified, some school districts lost the economies of scale necessary to offer the wide array of programs and services students need.

So you have schools without enough students — or the right teacher — to offer something like Advanced Placement physics. Or districts whose size has dropped so much that maintaining their own finance, technology or transportation departments makes little sense.

These situations and others like them call out for collaboration. Partnering with neighboring districts facing similar issues frees up resources to be used elsewhere, and provides programs and services to students who otherwise wouldn’t get them.

That’s what ultimately happened at districts that followed through on the forced consolidation attempted by the Baldacci administration. It wasn’t popular, but where consolidation was applied, it put more resources in the classroom.

LePage’s voluntary program has the potential to do the same, but without all the acrimony, and likely with a more widespread impact. The governor has asked for an additional $5 million for the regionalization fund in the next two-year budget, and it makes sense to consider an even greater expansion in future years as these new partnerships prove themselves and can be used as templates for other districts.

We should, though, be realistic about its limits. There are certainly many efficiencies to be found in Maine’s K-12 system — the basic structure hasn’t been updated in far too long — but it will take more than a few million dollars here and there to make a dent in a system that spends hundreds of millions a year. Education is expensive, and this program is not a substitute for fully funding schools — the state has everything to gain from investing in students and keeping schools open, even in rural areas where it doesn’t always make economic sense.

Still, that shouldn’t stop the state from looking hard at way Maine schools can make the most of what they have under the geographic and demographic realities they face. That’s what the LePage administration’s new initiative does, and we’re excited to see where it goes.