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Mills Nominates Brunswick Assistant Superintendent To Be Education Commissioner

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Mills Wednesday announced that she has selected Brunswick Assistant Superintendent Pender Makin (left).

Gov.-Elect Janet Mills will nominate a veteran teacher and administrator to serve as the state's next Commissioner of Education. Mills Wednesday announced that she has selected Brunswick Assistant Superintendent Pender Makin.

Lawmakers, teachers and school administrators are expressing optimism about the choice after years of revolving leadership in the Department.

In her more than 20 years in education, Makin has served in a variety of roles across Maine schools. She began her teaching career in Westbrook before becoming principal of the REAL School, an alternative school on Falmouth's Mackworth Island serving at-risk students from across southern Maine. Three years ago, she became the assistant superintendent of the Brunswick School Department.

In a press conference announcing Makin's nomination, Mills said that breadth of experience should allow Makin to provide needed guidance to schools across the state.

"The people of Maine will find a compassionate, caring and innovative educator, who will provide the long-awaited steady and reliable leadership at the state Department of Education," Mills said.

That leadership has been inconsistent in recent years. The Department of Education didn't have a permanent Commissioner for more than two years beginning in 2014, as Gov. Paul LePage instead nominated a series of "acting commissioners" to head the department. According to local officials, that instability led to a lack of trust between the Department and local districts.

Steve Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said he feels optimistic that Makin can rebuild that trust.

"We're really looking forward to some sustainability of leadership, as well as some re-creation of trust, as well as support and confidence in leadership," Bailey said.

Makin said she wants to listen to schools and help them recover from what she terms "mandate fatigue" following several new statewide requirements over the past eight years. Those include new teacher evaluation systems and a 2012 "proficiency-based diploma" law that would have required students to show proficiency in several subjects, like math, English and science in order to graduate. After pushback from parents and teachers, lawmakers got rid of that mandate earlier this year.

Makin also hopes to look towards methods of accountability beyond standardized tests, which she said does not accurately reflect what's happening in Maine schools.

"Our schools do so much more. And our students are so much more than their test scores," Makin said. "It's time to stop overlooking indicators of success, simply because they're difficult to measure or to plot on a graph."

At Wednesday's press conference, Makin laid out educational priorities that are largely in line with those of the Governor-elect. They include increasing teacher pay and implementing universal pre-K programs for four-year-olds.

Maine voters also passed a referendum in 2016 to raise the state share of education funding to 55 percent, a number it has yet to reach. Mills said she hopes to get to that number as part of her first budget proposal.

"One of the big-ticket items, one of the items that we expect to prioritize — teacher salaries," Mills said. "And getting to 55 percent, somehow, someway. And focusing on early childhood education."

Several education groups, including the state teachers' union, were positive about Mills' choice. Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt said she's encouraged by Makin's work in the classroom, particularly with at-risk students, and is optimistic that Makin will advocate for underserved students and schools.

"So really knowing that this is somebody that will be championing what is needed for all students in our schools is just refreshing," Leavitt said.

Ed Cervone, the executive director of the business-led educational lobbying group Educate Maine, said he believes that Makin’s varied experiences will help her to find common ground on policy issues, and support the needs of local schools in both urban and rural communities of Maine.

"To meet with the various stakeholders and figure out how to make that partnership real and effective," Cervone said.

The legislature will need to hold a public hearing and vote on Makin's nomination in the coming weeks before she can be confirmed.

For disclosure, the Maine Education Association represents most of Maine Public's news staff.

Updated 5:31 p.m. Dec. 26, 2018