Gov. Paul LePage wrote a scathing letter filled with personal criticism and a broadside against the state’s education system in a failed attempt to persuade Good Will–Hinckley, a school in central Maine, to not hire House Speaker Mark Eves as its next president.
“It is unfortunate for both Maine taxpayers and Maine students that the education system has become a soft-landing place for unqualified former Democratic politicians who seek exorbitant salaries but bring no real skills or true leadership to the important public positions entrusted to them,” the governor wrote to the school’s two board chairmen on Monday.
LePage also attacked Eves’ qualifications and said he has not dealt honestly with LePage while working on important state issues.
“Although he is employed as a family therapist, I have seen firsthand that his skills in conflict resolution, leadership, negotiation and reconciliation are sadly deficient,” LePage wrote.
Despite LePage’s last-minute plea, the Fairfield school announced Eves’ hiring Tuesday, calling him the best candidate to emerge from a nine-month national search. He starts July 1.
In an interview shortly after the announcement, Eves, of North Berwick, brushed aside the governor’s criticism and said he was attracted to the position because he’s spent his career helping at-risk youth and their families. He is a licensed family counselor and has operated a private practice in York County for many years.
“Thinking about the next chapter, this aligned with my values and what I want to continue to do,” he said.
The school’s board of directors was not dissuaded from hiring Eves by LePage, who said Eves’ consistent opposition to charter schools as a lawmaker should have disqualified him. Good Will-Hinckley operates the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, the first of five charter schools approved in Maine since 2011, along with other educational and social service programs.
“As a former at-risk youth myself, I question the ability of Speaker Eves to lead the mission of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences and administer the difficult and unique challenges faced by each of its students,” LePage wrote, citing Eves’ past votes against charter schools.
LePage didn’t stop there. He also blasted the selection of Eves as “unabashed political patronage.” He noted that the board chair for the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences, Bill Brown, works as a policy analyst in Eves’ legislative office and another board member for Good Will-Hinckley, Erik Jorgensen, was appointed by Eves in 2013 to the powerful Appropriations Committee as a freshman lawmaker.
Good Will-Hinckley officials, however, said both Brown and Jorgensen recused themselves from any discussions or votes involving Eves.
Brown on Tuesday declined to comment on the governor’s letter.
Jorgensen, a Democratic state representative from Portland, called it, “most unfortunate.”
“There is nobody I know with a higher sense of professionalism and care than Speaker Eves,” he said.
Jorgensen said he didn’t even know Eves was a candidate for the president position until he was named as a finalist. He said the governor’s allusion that Eves appointed him to the budget committee as some kind of favor is ridiculous.
Several other board members reached Tuesday declined to comment on the governor’s criticism of Eves.
John Moore, chairman of the Good Will-Hinckley board, declined to comment beyond a statement released Tuesday announcing Eves’ hiring.
“The Good Will-Hinckley Board of Directors and senior staff believe strongly that Mark Eves’ professional credentials and career in psychology and family therapy, as well as his statewide policy and leadership experience as speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, make him the best candidate to lead our school’s work creating opportunity for at-risk and non-traditional students from across Maine,” Moore said.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Adrienne Bennett, emailed a copy of the letter to the Press Herald and said LePage would make no additional comment.
Eves said he will continue to serve as House speaker through the end of his term next year. After that, he will be termed out of the Legislature. Asked whether he will move his family closer to Fairfield, Eves said he has not made a decision.
He said Tuesday that the governor’s letter surprised him, but he declined to criticize LePage.
“The governor and I both agree that Good Will-Hinckley is one of the great institutions of our state,” he said. “He’s been a great supporter of this school. It wouldn’t be here without him.”
Asked whether he expected that support to continue, Eves said, “I have no indication that’s not the case.”
Eves did acknowledge that he has not been a strong supporter of charter schools in the past and continues to have reservations about them. But he said his interest in aiding children from difficult backgrounds outweighed those concerns.
His annual salary will be $120,000 plus benefits.
For more than a century, Good Will-Hinckley operated as a private boarding school for at-risk children. It temporarily closed its core operations for financial reasons in June 2009, but then relaunched in 2011 as the state’s first charter school, the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences. The school focuses on hands-on learning, agriculture, sustainability, forestry, and work and living skills. It receives tuition funding from its approximately 75 students, and the state also contributes $530,000 annually to support residential programming.
In addition to the charter school, the Good Will-Hinckley campus in Fairfield includes: the Glenn Stratton Learning Center, the L.C. Bates Museum, the College Step-up Program and the Carnegie Library.
Eves takes over leadership of Good Will-Hinckley from Richard Abramson, a longtime Maine teacher and superintendent who had been interim president since September 2014.
Before that, the school’s president was Glenn Cummings, who was the interim president of the University of Maine at Augusta before being selected last month to lead the University of Southern Maine. Cummings is a former Democratic lawmaker who once held Eves’ position as House speaker.
It was Cummings who led the creation of the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in 2011 and helped secure a $10.5 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation to open the school. LePage even hosted that news conference and spoke highly of Cummings and the school.
Even before Monday’s letter, LePage had stepped up his criticism of Eves, mostly over budget negotiations.
In a media conference at the Blaine House on May 29, LePage lashed out at both Eves and Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond.
“I think the speaker of the House should go back home to where he was born (California), and I think that Mr. Alfond should be put in a playpen,” the governor said.
Eves, the son of a military chaplain, moved numerous times as a child but settled in Maine as an adult in 2002.