PORTLAND – Nothing was off-limits Thursday morning as eighth-graders at Lyman Moore Middle School asked Gov.-elect Paul LePage about his plans to lead Maine for the next four years.

During a visit to the school, LePage fielded tough questions from students on issues including education spending, environmental protection, welfare reform, gay marriage and President Obama.

The eighth-graders invited LePage, a Republican, to visit their school as the culmination of a months-long study of state government and the recent gubernatorial election.

“I’m not looking to cut education, I’m looking to reform education,” LePage told students gathered in the gym. “I believe very strongly that schools in Maine need to be brought up to the 21st century.”

LePage said he hopes to strike a balance between protecting the environment and promoting economic prosperity, and he wants to develop a tiered welfare system that doesn’t exclude low-wage earners from receiving benefits.

He isn’t for or against gay marriage, LePage told the students, and he’ll leave it to Maine voters to decide that issue as long as he’s governor.

He said Obama is “off to a rocky start,” and he criticized the president’s efforts to stimulate the economy, reform health care and manage the war in Afghanistan.

“You can’t take from one to give to another,” LePage said. “You don’t send people to war and tell them they can’t pull the trigger.”

Students in Regina Morton’s social studies classes decided to invite LePage to visit their school after they followed the various gubernatorial campaigns in the news. Sam Luebbert got a little nervous when he made the phone call.

“You get a deep-down feeling like butterflies, wondering who will answer and what they’ll say,” the eighth-grader said. “When they said yes, it was pretty cool.”

To welcome the governor-elect, the students created a large mural in the front lobby and a video featuring a television-style advertisement that students made about LePage during the election. LePage chuckled as he watched the video, then answered about 10 questions that had been drafted by students.

“When experts talk about authentic learning, this is it,” said Superintendent Jim Morse, who attended LePage’s visit. “I think the kids connected with (LePage) on a very personal level today.”

The students asked a few questions related to education, including whether LePage supports the state-funded computer laptop program that helped them make the video about him.

“It’s certainly a program we’re going to look into,” LePage said, adding that he wants to make sure it’s being used effectively in classrooms.

Asked why he supports charter schools, LePage said he believes they give students greater choice and opportunity in education. “I believe charter schools can specialize in a way that public schools can’t,” he said.

LePage said he supports continued consolidation of Maine’s school districts, but probably wouldn’t do it as Gov. John Baldacci’s administration has. “I would like to see more consolidation and less superintendents,” he said.

He noted that Maine is challenged because some aspects of consolidation work in urban but not rural areas, where increased busing can cancel out benefits of forming larger districts.

LePage said he doesn’t plan to cut education spending, though Maine school districts are bracing for a $218 million reduction in federal money in 2011-12, after Obama’s economic stimulus funding runs out this year.

The governor-elect said he wants to put more resources in classrooms, reduce bureaucracy in Augusta, increase vocational education and offer associate degrees to students who complete a fifth year of high school.

Maine has great teachers and great students, LePage said, but it pays top dollar for average test results. He pointed to Utah as a more thrifty state. Maine’s annual per-pupil cost is $11,644, compared with $5,706 for Utah, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Maine’s fourth- and eighth-graders outpaced Utah’s and national average scores on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Overall, LePage said, the education system is broken and too-powerful teachers unions are inhibiting reform.

“Teachers are going to have to come to the place where they understand that we’re all going to have to do more with less,” LePage said after meeting with the students. “But I’ll protect a teacher over an administrator any day.”

Portland teachers union President Kathleen Casasa, who attended LePage’s visit, said she hopes the governor-elect forges partnerships with teachers and takes advantage of their expertise in bringing change to Maine schools.

“We have a huge interest in providing a good education to our students,” she said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com