LePage blames media for his decision to pull out of education commission

Gov. Paul LePage. BDN file photo by Ashley L. Conti.

Gov. Paul LePage. BDN file photo by Ashley L. Conti.

Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that he will withdraw the executive branch completely from participating in a commission aimed at reforming Maine’s public schools funding formula because he is “fed up” with media coverage of his statements and actions as governor.

“As of yesterday afternoon I have withdrawn the executive branch from that group,” LePage said Tuesday morning during his weekly appearance on WVOM radio. “We’ll provide them whatever data they need but the executive branch will no longer be participating, period.”

The commission, which was created in a bill that resulted from negotiations between the Legislature and the LePage administration, met for the first time Monday in an invite-only affair at the Blaine House. The closed-door meeting garnered widespread media coverage because Maine’s open meeting laws state clearly the commission meetings of any sort are supposed to be open to the public. The attorney general and Maine’s public access ombudsman, Brenda Kielty, agreed that Monday’s gathering violated the state’s open meeting law.

On Monday, LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in a written statement that LePage had “offered to step back from the process.” She did not respond to a request from the BDN for clarification about what that statement meant. LePage said Tuesday that he has withdrawn himself and the Department of Education from any further work by the commission because he is treated unfairly.

“The press takes seven seconds of what I say and they make a shit show out of it,” said LePage. “I’m tired of it and I’m not going to participate. … I’m not going to be involved in an organization or any committee that by throwing ideas around, is going to be politically sensitive and on the front page of every newspaper. I am best to withdraw and let those people do their work so they don’t get the criticism that I get when I do anything.”

LePage denied any responsibility for setting up the blue ribbon commission and said if he’d done it, it would have been a private process.

“I would have set it up by executive order and it would have been executive meetings,” he said.

According to Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, through his spokesman this morning, the idea for the Blue Ribbon Commission was LePage’s.

“The blue ribbon commission was something LePage brought to the table during those negotiations,” said Alfond spokesman Mario Moretto (who is a former BDN reporter). “Its mandate and membership composition came from him.”

It’s worth noting here that the media could not quote LePage or his education chief, William Beardsley, saying anything at all at the commission meeting on Monday because reporters were not let in. We reported on a violation of Maine’s open meeting law because it’s our responsibility to do so and when we don’t, we are failing our readers and the concept of open government that is supposed to be ensured by the Maine Constitution and the U.S. Constitution that elected officials swear to uphold.

However, we’re also very interested in education policy. After Alfond told me that Beardsley and LePage stated a goal of ensuring all students are reading at grade level by third grade, I sent the following questions to Bennett and LePage Communications Director Peter Steele:

Good afternoon,

I have already queried Anne in DOE but does the governor have a statement about the discussion at today’s meeting, any progress he thinks was made and the path forward?
I have heard that the administration has a goal of having every third grader be proficient in reading. Can you provide any detail about that, such as a timeline for the goal or how it would be accomplished?
Here is Bennett’s response, in its entirety:

Hi Chris,

MEA for years has obstructed educational reform in our state, fighting viciously to maintain the status quo of stagnant student performance and ever-increasing budgets. These are the sort of tactics the MEA engages in to distract from any serious efforts to offer meaningful educational reform that would benefit Maine students and teachers.

This morning’s meeting was an informal, get-to-know-you gathering in a relaxed setting before the commission starts its work at a later date. 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. All documents and recommendations will be included in a report to the Legislature and available for public viewing.

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. Now the public will see if the MEA, legislators and the media are truly dedicated to doing what’s best for our students or if they will continue their election-year antics that have nothing to do with improving Maine’s educational system.

That obviously didn’t answer my questions, so I replied:

Clarification, please: What does “offered to step back from the process” mean?

And, what about the questions I asked about policy, reform and reading proficiency for third graders?
Bennett’s final response:
Chris, I admire the optimism, but the 2-hour meeting did not offer any policy decisions or reform regarding reading proficiency. Again, let me emphasize that the commission’s work will take time and the goal is to report recommendations at a later date so as there can be public discussion regarding upcoming proposed policy.

One of the WVOM radio hosts asked LePage about his treatment by the press.

“There’s always a headline or two, governor,” said host George Hale. “We like to give you a chance to respond. Sometimes you don’t get fair treatment, sometimes you do…”

“What are you talking about ‘sometimes I don’t get,'” said LePage. “You give me a day I ever did in this state.”

Well, one example was yesterday.

Christopher Cousins

About Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.