AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage and his education chief want every student in Maine to reach grade-level proficiency in reading by third grade, according to an attendee of a new task force that met behind closed doors Monday morning at the Blaine House.

Democratic Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland, a former Education Committee member and leader of the Senate Democrats, said LePage and his education chief, William Beardsley, offered few details about how the goal could be accomplished or what, if anything, would happen to schools that don’t meet the goal.

About 48 percent of Maine’s third-graders were proficient in English and language arts/literacy in 2015, according to the Department of Education.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett at first did not answer questions about policy initiatives or the governor’s thoughts about any progress made on Monday, but instead attacked the Maine Education Association, the union that represents public school teachers, and the media.

“There is much work to do to improve scholastic performance, lower educational costs and make our school system more efficient and effective for our teachers and especially our students. … The governor, at this time, has offered to step back from the process to save the MEA and the media from wasting their time attacking him instead of focusing on real education reform,” said Bennett in a written statement.

In response to more questions from the BDN, Bennett said “the two-hour meeting did not offer any policy decisions or reform regarding reading proficiency.” She did not address a question about what LePage meant by “stepping back” from the process.

Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R-Lisbon, who is a member of the task force, said one way the committee will troll for ideas is by examining past studies commissioned by the executive and legislative branches, such as the $450,000 “Picus report” that studied Maine’s education funding formula and former Education Commissioner Steve Bowen’s “Education Evolving” study. Mason said the funding formula needs stabilization.

“Every year there’s all these bills presented in the Legislature that people carry around and argue that it’s best for their community,” said Mason. “We play spreadsheet politics all session long with the education funding formula. Maybe we can do that a different way.”

Beardsley’s role

Alfond said the goal around third-grade reading was one area of detail amid an otherwise very general discussion about education in Maine that ranged from the state’s tax structure to the needs of the labor force.

“It was a series of 10,000-foot-level overviews, five minutes apiece,” said Alfond. “It felt like Beardsley wanted to get to some sort of grand consensus right away in the first meeting but it became very apparent that we were there not even understanding what our mission was and what success would look like for our group.”

Beardsley, a deputy commissioner of education, was originally nominated to be commissioner by LePage, but LePage withdrew the nomination before confirmation hearings began after controversy surfaced about some of Beardsley’s views. The governor said he did not think Beardsley would be treated fairly by Democratic lawmakers during hearings on his nomination.

In April, LePage signed a financial order that named Beardsley a “public service executive,” a move that would allow Beardsley to lead the department through 2018 without vetting or approval by the Legislature. All other nominees to become department commissioners in state government undergo that scrutiny

LePage has said that he would personally handle signatures and other duties of the education commissioner when they arise, but Beardsley’s heavy involvement in Monday’s hearing confirms that the former Husson University president will be the public face of LePage’s education reform agenda.

Secret start

The blue ribbon commission was created earlier this year as part of a bill that aligned Maine’s tax code with the federal government’s and provided $15 million in new education funding to bridge part of a gap created by shrinking statewide property values.

Alfond and others decried that t he commission’s first meeting was closed to the public, sitting lawmakers and the media. The Maine Education Association, which recorded and posted a video of people being barred from the meeting, branded the meeting “illegal” under Maine’s open meeting laws.

“I find it unacceptable the governor would deny the public entry to this important discussion,” said Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association. “Not only does it violate the requirements of the public’s business being conducted in public, but it makes us wonder what the governor is trying to hide by making the commission meet in secret.”

Peter Steele, a spokesman for LePage, said in a written statement to the Bangor Daily News Monday that the meeting was not open because it was “just an informal, get-to-know-you gathering in a relaxed setting before the commission starts its work at a later date.”

Democratic Sen. Rebecca Millett of South Portland, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Education Committee, was among those who were denied access to the event when it began at around 8:30 a.m. Monday at the Blaine House.

“They asked me to go back outside the gate,” said Millett. “This is a legislative commission that deals with one of the most important issues in the state of Maine. There are some important topics that the commission is outlined to address and the fact that it is being done behind closed doors is very worrisome.”

State law defines “public proceedings” as “the transactions of any functions affecting any or all citizens of the state by … any board or commission of any state agency or authority.”

House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, R-Newport, who is a member of the task force, was not available for comment.

Asked whether he considered skipping the meeting out of concern about it being held privately, Alfond said he decided to attend.

“I thought that by not going to the meeting I was giving up my voice for future meetings to be public,” he said. “I went so I could advocate for my ideas about how this commission’s work should be done.”

Alfond said the next meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission to Reform Public Education Funding and Improve Student Performance in Maine is scheduled for June 6 at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School in South Paris. He said the LePage administration has said that the commission’s upcoming meetings — which could total six by the time it makes recommendations later this year — will be public.

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