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LePage Says He's Giving Up on Education Reform Panel

MPBN file
Gov. Paul LePage at a town hall meeting in Augusta in June.

Gov. Paul LePage says he has given up on a special commission designed to recommend improvements to Maine’s public education system because the panel cannot meet in private.

The governor’s latest comments further cloud the panel’s work after a rocky beginning, while also illustrating his conflicting views of government transparency.

Originally, the Blue Ribbon Commission to Reform Public Education Funding was viewed by the LePage administration as a policy victory. LePage has consistently railed against what he views as Maine’s high public education costs compared to its results in student achievement.

The commission, created during negotiations with lawmakers over a supplemental spending bill, was his chance to shape a solution. But on Tuesday, LePage told Bangor radio station WVOM that he’s given up on it.

“I’m not going because, I don’t know, it’s just a dead issue in my mind. It died the day of the first meeting,” LePage says.

The governor says the commission is doomed because its 15-member panel of educators and lawmakers cannot discuss public education reform in private.

He compared the panel’s work to a negotiation. And negotiations, he said, are best done out of the public view.

“How do you negotiate in public? You tell me that,” LePage says. “I’ve never been able to negotiate a contract on stage.”

The governor’s desire to keep the commission’s meetings private was made clear in late April. That’s when his staff blocked members of the public and the press from the very first meeting at the Blaine House. Those efforts were captured in emails and text messages obtained by the Office of the Attorney General, which also show that members of the governor’s staff were warned that the meeting violated the state’s open meeting law.

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills has since filed a complaint in Kennebec County Superior Court. In addition, the use of text messages by the governor’s staff is a violation of LePage’s own transparency policy.

“A lot of people, including myself, had a lot of high hopes for that. It got off to a really bad start,” says Republican Senate Leader Garrett Mason, a member of the Education Commission.

Mason says he sympathizes with the governor’s wish to have the commission meet privately. He believes Democrats have politicized the panel’s efforts. He also believes it will be difficult to draft any meaningful reforms because the controversy has created delays, forcing it to resume its work during the height of election season.

“I’ve worked with the governor for six years now and I can tell you that he had the best of intentions in putting that commission together,” Mason says.

But LePage is now denying that the commission was his idea. He says he was duped by Democrats, and he blamed Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland.

Alfond, who is also on the commission, said such claims are another example of LePage “making things up.”

“He was the architect of it. He decided who was going to be on it. He decided what the agenda was going to be, what we were going to study and research,” he says.

Alfond also took issue with LePage’s assertion on WVOM that the commission couldn’t do anything meaningful in public.

“For people to say that you’re going to sit in the public and negotiate, when you’re an elected official, is absolutely insane,” LePage said.

The governor’s statement is at odds with his own critique of legislative leaders last year. Back then, lawmakers were under fire for secretly negotiating the final details of the state’s $6.7 billion budget, and LePage slammed the closed-door process in his weekly radio address.

“They held secret negotiations on a budget that affects 1.3 million Mainers, and in doing so, left their character and integrity at the door — which they closed,” LePage said in his address last year.

It was later discovered that LePage officials were not only aware of details of the secret budget talks, they assisted in drafting tax analyses that became part of the final budget proposal.

According to the most recent Department of Education figures, the state spent nearly $1 billion on local education aid in fiscal year 2017.

The education commission, which has not met since its first meeting in late April, is expected to resume work Aug. 29 at York County Community College.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.