The head of Maine’s pioneering computers-in-schools program is stepping down .

Jeff Mao, who has been policy director and team leader of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative since June 2008 and has worked there since 2004, is leaving government next Friday for a job in the private sector. Three other members of the seven-person staff of the program have departed in recent months, as have several independent contractors.

The program, founded in 2001 under Gov. Angus King, issues laptop or tablet computers to every seventh- and eighth-grade public school student in Maine. Many school districts also provide devices to high school students via the program’s negotiated contract prices with vendors. Until a year ago the program was based on Apple laptops, but now most schools use iPads or Windows-based laptops.

The state Department of Education does not expect to replace Mao or fill other vacant staff positions until after the November gubernatorial election, Mao said in an email to school technology officials announcing his resignation. “There is no ‘list’ of likely candidates at this stage, but I know the Department will do its best to find qualified and dedicated professionals to continue what I believe to be programs without equal anywhere in the United States.”

“Let me assure you that my departure and the recent departure of other members of my team here at DOE have nothing to do with any government conspiracies or decrease in support for MLTI … or any of the other programs that we administer,” Mao wrote.

Department spokeswoman Samantha Warren said in an email to the Press Herald that the program has always had trouble retaining staff. “It’s a constant challenge to find people who have the right skills and are mission-oriented enough to overlook the state’s salary scale which … can’t compete with the private sector and often our public schools.” In 2012, Mao earned a $75,046 salary plus benefits, according to a database compiled by the Maine Heritage Policy Center.

As a result, Warren said, the program has only once been fully staffed since its inception, for a brief period early this year. Since then, two staffers left, and one other, David Patterson, died shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. Two of those staff positions have since been filled, but the expiration of several contract positions – and Mao’s departure – leaves the program short-staffed.

Gov. Paul LePage considered ending the laptop program in late 2012, when Department of Education officials were preparing to put out a bid request for new laptop or tablet computers. Correspondence acquired by the Press Herald showed Steve Bowen, then education commissioner, had to talk him out of it.

Ultimately the governor renewed the program, but he personally chose the winning device – a Windows-based HP laptop – even though it was more expensive and had been scored significantly worse than the Apple iPad by the education department’s bid evaluators.

In March 2013, Mao – who oversaw the then $13 million annual program and the awarding of tens of millions of dollars in equipment, service, and support contracts – was found to have been storing his official email in a way that did not leave backups on the state’s computer networks, and instead stored them and other records on an external hard drive at his residence.

The practice – which was exposed after Mao repeatedly failed to turn over emails in response to a public records request by a Portland computer services firm concerned about the way state contracts were being awarded – had been going on since 2004. The head of the Maine State Archives, David Cheever, described it as “a clear violation of record retentions policies.”

In October, Mao will begin working for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides “unbiased information, trusted advice and innovative tools” to parents, teachers and policy makers about movies, TV shows, websites, digital curriculum and other media. Mao will be based in Maine where he will help start a new consulting division that aims to assist school districts nationwide who wish to replicate Maine’s program.

“Basically this move will provide me the time to write ‘The Book of MLTI,’ ” he wrote in an email to school officials. “I hope that the finished work will be of benefit to both schools in Maine and elsewhere.”

Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

cwoodard@pressherald.com