Maine’s public schools will soon get a much-needed financial boost, thanks to passage of Question 2 last Nov. 8. Despite Gov. Paul LePage’s huffing and puffing, the Legislature is unlikely to defy voters’ express direction for the state to pay 55 percent of school costs — and some $167 million more a year will flow to K-12 education.

In addition to supporting schools, the 3 percent surtax on adjusted incomes of $200,000 and up will provide property tax relief for municipalities, which were staggered by LePage’s cuts to school funding — down from 53 percent in 2009 to 45 percent today – and a 60 percent reduction in revenue sharing.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the state has no plan for directing use of the new money, and hasn’t addressed Maine’s dramatic demographic changes.

Public school enrollment peaked at 250,000 students in 1970, and has declined to just 180,000. Yet the administrative structure has changed very little.

The problem, in LePage’s irritable version, is “too many superintendents,” but we have too many superintendents because we have too many school districts. Fewer districts will mean reorganizing — and LePage has offered no hint of a plan.

His predecessor, John Baldacci, did make such an effort, but the 2007 consolidation effort was widely judged a failure — not because the idea lacked merit, but was poorly executed. The version ultimately devised by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee applied penalties to non-cooperating towns, and no financial help.

It was almost calculated to maximize local resistance, and did. Some new regional school units (RSUs) were formed, but the law never met its targets, and many towns withdrew after LePage eliminated the penalties.

An effort aimed only at cutting the state budget — the 2007 plan’s design — is never going to work in Maine, with its strong local control sensibilities and consensus-based decision-making.

Fortunately, there’s a much better model that could be refurbished for contemporary use. It’s the Sinclair Act, enacted in 1957 — a product of Ed Muskie’s brief time as governor before his celebrated 22-year career in the U.S. Senate.

Muskie worked through Sen. Roy Sinclair, producing enthusiastic support for school administrative districts (SADs) — the only successful regional public school initiative Maine has ever seen. Unlike RSUs forced into being, the SADs — 64 of them — created strong, durable community support in 230 towns and cities, offering regional high schools with comprehensive curriculums.

Reflecting the efficiencies larger districts produced, the state provided enhanced subsidies and guaranteed construction of new regional schools. Some of the best high schools in Maine are regionals, a lifeline to rural areas struggling with out-migration and now, LePage’s reduced state services.

A new Sinclair Act is not only possible, but overdue, and the influx of new money makes it feasible. It should also correct a major mistake in school construction funding made during implementation of the Essential Programs and Services (EPS) system.

Originally, the state paid a portion of new school costs, with a local share based on property values. EPS, however, provides 100 percent funding for approved projects, so the state funds fewer schools.

The backlog is now so great many districts have given up trying, and are proposing completely local funding. Brunswick is the latest, with a $28 million bond on the June ballot, but even for wealthier communities, it’s a stretch. Those lucky to finish atop the state’s list pay little or nothing, while many deserving projects won’t be built.

More money for K-12 can become a carrot to share resources, with more viable schools long-term. Many Maine schools already suffer from “empty classrooms,” as one former education commissioner put it.

Schools better suited to current demographics are also vital to better performance, better pay for teachers and, ultimately, enhanced student learning. The Sinclair Act began with a study, and the Legislature should commission another.

It will finally have an education commissioner to work with, after a three-year vacancy. Robert Hasson, the nominee, is a veteran Maine educator who understands how Maine school systems work.

He’s already announced a regional initiative, offering funding for separate school districts to cooperatively build new schools. History suggests towns will find this difficult, however; even regional districts struggle to consolidate schools.

If, unlike in 2007, the Legislature produces a statewide plan based on clear, easily understood principles, it will win public support — and the state has unused borrowing capacity to jump-start new regional schools.

Simply funding what we have now — the path of least resistance — will lead to inevitable disappointment. Lawmakers must seize the moment to ensure this new public investment is well spent; it won’t likely come again.

Douglas Rooks has covered the State House for 32 years. His first book, “Statesman: George Mitchell and the Art of the Possible,” is now available. Comment is welcomed at: [email protected]

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