AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage on Wednesday called on the members of Maine’s charter school commission to resign, a day after the seven-member panel rejected four out of five applications for new charter schools.
The commission’s chairwoman, Jana Lapoint, said LePage “threw us under the bus” Wednesday with no understanding of the commission’s process or motivations. To her knowledge, she said, no one on the commission is considering resigning in response to LePage’s comments.
LePage, during a 10-minute press conference in his office, railed against the commission, the state’s largest teachers union and organizations representing superintendents and school boards, accusing them of resisting change to Maine’s education system and clinging to the “status quo.”
He also accused the Maine School Management Association, which represents Maine’s public school superintendents and school boards, of attempting to intimidate charter school commission members into rejecting applications for new charter schools.
Officials from those organizations rejected LePage’s criticisms and said they share his desire to improve Maine’s education system.
The Maine School Boards Association, which operates under the umbrella of the Maine School Management Association, was prepared Tuesday to intervene in the charter school process, a move allowed under the state’s Administrative Procedures Act, but decided against it after the commission rejected four of the five applications before it.
“The school boards hired an attorney, they put together a letter, went in there and intimidated them,” LePage said. “If you’ve got a job and you’re going to be intimidated, give it up and we’ll get somebody who can do the job.
“I am asking them for the good of the kids of the state of Maine, please go away. We don’t need you. We need some people with backbones,” LePage said.
In the Maine School Boards Association’s letter, it requested that any public hearings and interviews scheduled for the week of Jan. 14 be postponed for at least a week “to give MSBA an adequate opportunity to prepare and submit evidence and argument.”
Lapoint said LePage has his facts wrong. The commission had made preliminary decisions about the five applications before they learned of the association’s planned intervention, she said.
“Quite frankly, I felt the governor threw us under the bus this morning without any information from our commission,” said Lapoint. “To say that we were being threatened by organizations within the state of Maine is so out of whack. It’s so incomprehensible that he would say that. All he had to do was talk to us and see that we made our decision the day before. We were not being threatened by anyone.”
Connie Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said her organization prepared its petition for intervention after a meeting Saturday during which school board members across Maine requested it.
“I don’t think [LePage’s] characterization is accurate,” said Brown. “The school boards brought a concern before the commission appropriately. We want to work with the governor. The school boards in Maine are in it for all students and they want to be involved in policy coming out of the governor’s office to make sure he’s looking out for the education of all students.”
This is the second time LePage has called on charter school commission members to resign. In June, LePage pressured the commission members to accelerate the approval process for two applicants seeking to open virtual charter schools or step down.
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said she thought the commission acted appropriately.
“They were taking a slow, thorough look into each of the applications,” she said. “If the application didn’t meet the standards that they had set, they used that application process as a cut process.”
Although the MEA has been an opponent of Maine’s charter school law, Kilby-Chesley said, the organization doesn’t oppose charter schools in concept. Among the chief problems with Maine’s law, she said, is that it pulls funding away from traditional public schools as opposed to setting up a charter school-specific funding stream.
“We don’t absolutely say charter schools shouldn’t be in existence,” said Kilby-Chesley. “We say they need to have the same oversight that public schools have.”
The charter school commission’s Tuesday rejection of four of five charter school applications led Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen to suggest a problem in the charter school approval process.
“What this leads me to wonder is, are we at the Department of Education doing a good enough job and is the commission doing a good enough job in indicating to applicants what they should be doing?” Bowen told the Bangor Daily News on Tuesday. “My biggest concern is potentially the chilling effect this will have on other folks putting forward applications.”
Lapoint said the commission was following the requirements clearly stated in law and in a request for proposals that resulted in the five applications. But LePage said the commission should have given the charter school applicants an opportunity to discuss their proposals with commission members before rejecting them.
“Their job is to send out RFPs, get proposals in, study the proposals and then approve or reject,” LePage said. “But they rejected four out of five without giving them a hearing, without even listening to them.”
Three of the four failed applications were rejected because their proposed governance structures, which are supposed to include fully independent boards with ultimate authority over personnel and finances, were not in line with the charter school law. Lapoint said the two applicants for virtual schools, Maine Connections Academy and Maine Virtual Academy, had been told last year that their governance structures were a problem. The commission delayed action on those applications last year while it went through a process of educating itself about virtual schools.
“I don’t know why they thought it was going to be OK to come back with the same applications,” said Lapoint. “They didn’t seem to get the message that their board has to be separate in every way.”
LePage doesn’t have the authority to hire or fire charter school commission members. Three of them are State Board of Education members, and those members choose the other four.
During LePage’s Wednesday afternoon press conference — among the first he has given since last summer — the governor also had harsh words for the Maine Education Association, the state’s primary teachers union, accusing it of standing in the way of reforms to the public school system.
“I’m speaking out against the administration of the school systems, K-12, because they’re stuck in the status quo, and I’m speaking out against the MEA,” LePage said. “We have some of the lowest-paid teachers in the country and what does the union do? They just collect their union dues, and the school districts allow teachers to dig into their pockets to buy school supplies because we’re so cheap that we won’t take care of the teachers.”
LePage also repeated his criticism that Maine’s education system is heavy on administration, reciting the statistic that Florida has 57 superintendents for 2.7 million students while Maine has 127 superintendents — 94 full-time and 33 part-time, according to the Maine School Management Association — for 186,000 students.
And he continued criticizing school superintendents who “double-dip” by accepting salaries on top of their pensions when they return to work after retiring.
“It’s morally reprehensible to me,” he said.