When disaster strikes in the television-video era, presidents and governors go to the scene to inspect the damage, to reassure, and to offer help. Gov. Paul LePage didn’t remember that before he went to Lewiston on Tuesday, days after devastating downtown fires left 200people homeless.

The governor was clear that the two 12-year-olds accused of starting fires should be “put away,” but less clear that Maine’s second largest city deserved his sympathy or assistance. “These are disaster times and you do the best you can do with what you have,” was his message. He then added, “The encouraging thing is that there are a lot of people willing to help.” LePage wasn’t one of them.

Asked about a request from the area’s legislative delegation for emergency aid from the governor’s contingency fund, he said there was none: “If there’s discretionary funding — I’ve been there more than two years and I haven’t found any.” The governor’s office later clarified that yes, there was a contingency account – authorized by statute for emergencies – but that Lewiston wasn’t getting anything from it.

LePage then decided to shift the focus to the Legislature, challenging leaders to find some money on their own – even though the executive branch expends about 95 percent of the budget, and the contingency account is the specific source created by the Legislature for this purpose.

As so often happens with LePage, it’s difficult to decide whether the governor is misinformed, or if he’s itching to avoid responsibility and blame perceived adversaries for his own missteps.

The ever-loyal House Republican Leader, Ken Fredette, on this occasion steered a separate path. Fredette had visited members of the Lewiston’s Somali community two weeks earlier – something it’s hard to imagine LePage doing. He mustered the words the governor somehow couldn’t find, saying, “My thoughts and prayers go out to those hurt or displaced by the fires, and we stand ready to assist in any way possible.”

More than halfway through LePage’s term, it’s clear this isn’t just about ideology, or political beliefs. The governor has a serious lack of empathy with his fellow citizens, rarely on such vivid display as it was in Lewiston.

But it surfaces often enough. The previous week LePage released his grades on Maine public schools, rated A through F. The rankings were based almost entirely on student test scores, and were no surprise to anyone who follows Maine’s economic and educational fortunes.

Communities in the southern part of the state, which have a large share of the good jobs and well-educated citizens, got the As and Bs, while those in the often impoverished rural north and west got Ds and Fs, with few exceptions.

But what do such grades mean? We all know what individual student grades are for, but what is the purpose of giving a whole school an F? Doesn’t it all depend on how many students are ready to learn, and have supportive environments at home and in the community?

The Department of Education, which devised the rankings, foreordained the results by deciding that the midpoint of the test scores would be a C, so there were equal number of As and Fs. This tells us nothing about the overall quality of public education in Maine, which actually rates above average on most national indicators.

If the administration were committed to raising student achievement, as measured by test scores, that would be one thing. But it isn’t.

The only financial assistance the department could point to is a $3 million budget request for innovative school grants, which, if approved, would be one-third of 1 percent of state spending on public education.

The real agenda was signaled in an administration bill that would give under-performing schools two years to shape up – without any additional money – and then allow parents to transfer students elsewhere. That sounds like a sure-fire way to push rural schools over the edge in a state where empty classrooms are already a big concern.

Back in Lewiston, reporters were looking hard for any sign LePage felt something for families made homeless through no fault of their own. One asked what it felt like to be back in his hometown, where his famously rough childhood was a big part of his campaign message. The answer: “It brings back a lot of bad memories.”

Part of good leadership is learning to overcome one’s own misfortunes and inspiring others to do the same. It’s the classic American story – but it’s one Paul LePage hasn’t read, or doesn’t understand.

Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at [email protected]

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