Maine high school principals are puzzled over a copy of an editorial cartoon that Gov. Paul LePage’s office sent them this month along with a handwritten note from LePage.

The cartoon, by syndicated editorial cartoonist Steve Breen of the San Diego Union-Tribune, depicts a conversation between two young men.

One says: “This fall, I’m going to trade school to be a welder.”

The other has a thought bubble over his head that reads “Loser.”

The first young man is labeled: “Starting salary upon graduation: $50,000.”

The other man’s label reads: “Starting salary upon graduation from a pricey, 4-year school with a liberal arts degree: $25,000 (if he’s lucky).”

LePage’s message beneath the cartoon says: “Folks. We can do better and need to do better! Let’s put our students first.”

The cartoon arrived in the mail with a letter, dated Sept. 7, from Jonathan Nass, LePage’s senior policy adviser.

The letter said, in its entirety: “Governor LePage was recently given the attached cartoon and asked that I forward it along to all of the state’s high school principals. You will see that the governor added a hand-written note. Thank you for your time and best wishes for the new school year.”

Principals said this week that they aren’t sure what the governor was trying to say.

Deborah Migneault, principal of Portland High School, said her first thought was: What did the governor pay for postage?

“If he sent that to all principals, it seems like an incredible waste,” she said. “We have enough to think about. I don’t think that cartoon motivates us.”

Christian Elkington, principal of Massabesic High School in Waterboro, said he understood the governor’s point that vocational and technical education should be encouraged as an option, but disagreed with the assumption that schools don’t do that already.

“We aren’t forcing kids down one path or another,” he said.

In an email Tuesday, LePage’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor has said repeatedly that “career and technical education has not been given the recognition it deserves.”

“The governor is simply saying let’s do better, let’s provide students with the choices that will provide successful outcomes,” she wrote. “Every child learns differently; our teachers recognize this and so does the governor.”

LePage has spoken out often about education. In March, he spoke to a group of eighth-graders in Waterville and told them that college isn’t for everyone.

More recent remarks have prompted rebukes from educators and students.

On July 25, while rolling out a new education agenda, LePage said Maine students are looked down on by colleges in other parts of the country.

In mid-August, Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski sent all teachers and staff members a welcome-back letter that was critical of LePage and his education policies. The governor’s office called Perzanoski’s letter “wildly inappropriate.”

The latest message from LePage was more confusing than anything, principals said.

“I agree that there are a lot of different ways to be successful,” said Britton Wolfe, principal of Biddeford High School. “But this is something we’re aware of and have been working on.”

Greely High School Principal Dan McKeone said he was confused but he respects the governor’s opinion.

“I look at learning as a lifelong endeavor, and it’s our job to provide multiple pathways. It’s up to the individual to decide what’s right for them,” he said.

State Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, said the governor’s overall message about promoting technical education rings true.

“That’s where the jobs are and are expected to be,” said Langley, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Education Committee and is a longtime vocational teacher. “But we’ve told our kids that there are jobs that are beneath them. That’s unfortunate.”

Sen. Justin Alfond of Portland, the assistant Democratic leader and a member of the Education Committee, said LePage’s passive-aggressive message is the latest example of his “demonizing students.”

“He’s introduced initiative after initiative to take tax dollars and channel them to private schools, virtual schools and religious schools,” Alfond said. “With this (cartoon), he seems to be casting judgment on the decisions of students and parents. We should be celebrating all options.”

One week after the letter was sent, Maine Principals’ Association director Dick Durost sent a letter to members, saying he was glad to see LePage take an interest but was unclear about the connection between the cartoon and LePage’s message.

“The cartoon presents the perception that one career pathway is better, worse or more favorable than another,” he wrote. “Every educator that I know stresses the value of preparing our students for life beyond high school, whether the student enters the world of work immediately or chooses to pursue military service, trade school, community college, or public or private four year college or university.”

Durost disagreed with the cartoon’s sentiment and said studies show that, over a person’s lifetime, the higher the degree achieved, the more earning potential that person has.

Durost further challenged the governor’s implication that Maine students aren’t being put first already. He ended his letter by writing: “You have more knowledge, background, expertise, passion and compassion for putting Maine’s students first that any other individual or group. The MPA supports your efforts. Your goals are worthy — do not be distracted.”

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

erussell@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @PPHEricRussell