Maine has too many school districts, which spend too much on administrative costs that could be better put to use in classrooms or other parts of state government.

That’s why we supported former Gov. John Baldacci’s 2007 initiative to merge school administrative districts, and have opposed all efforts to weaken the law, including bills that delay or remove the fines levied on districts that don’t comply. Maine voters apparently agree, and in 2009 knocked down a statewide referendum that would have repealed it.

But we also acknowledge that something isn’t working. After more than three years, there are still too many districts — 179 down from 290 — and too many bills in the Legislature that would stop progress on consolidation or even reverse it. The Legislature should not give up on consolidation, but it should also listen to the critics and find a better way to move forward.

The best idea we have heard so far offers a new way to look at administrative costs, but comes to the plate with two strikes against it in the current political environment, where rural Republicans rule. It’s from a Democrat (strike one) who is from Portland (strike two). But, politics aside, Rep. Stephen Lovejoy’s idea deserves a fair hearing.

Lovejoy proposes repealing the section of the law that fines districts for noncompliance, and amends the school funding formula to end state aid for administration, making it an entirely local responsibility. This could create an incentive for a district that has not already done so to merge all or part of its administrative functions with a neighbor. It would also create an opportunity for a community that wants to keep its own superintendent and business office, as long as it is willing to pay for it.

Local taxpayers would have the final say if they find that the district is efficient enough. So if the people of School Administrative District 45 in Washburn are comfortable paying 13.7 percent of their total budget on administrative costs, as opposed to the less than 2 percent spent in Scarborough, that would be their choice — and their responsibility.

The strength of the idea is that it treats all districts fairly and works with incentives instead of penalties. It opens the door to creative local solutions instead of a one-size-fits-all approach. And it offers a way to reduce the amount of money spent on administration statewide.

We are much less enthusiastic about other proposed changes to the consolidation law. There are bills to exempt individual districts from complying or to allow already merged districts to dissolve. The worst idea would keep the law in place but remove the fines, giving districts no incentive to find efficiencies in administration, but keep the state on the hook for paying for it.

Lawmakers should look for ways to make districts more efficient without undoing the hard work that has already been done. When they are ready to have that conversation, Lovejoy’s bill would be a good place to start.