AUGUSTA — The board of Good Will-Hinckley School withdrew its job offer to House Speaker Mark Eves just days before he was to become the school’s new president, making the decision after Gov. Paul LePage apparently threatened to withhold state funding for the school.
The school said Wednesday that the board of directors had “voted to seek a new direction for the institution’s leadership” in order to avoid “political controversy.” But Eves’ attorney said the state legislator had been “terminated … without cause” and hinted at legal action against the governor.
Eves, meanwhile, released a statement accusing LePage of “blackmailing” the school for at-risk youths by threatening to cut $500,000 in state funding. He said that could potentially cause the loss of another $2 million in private funding for the school, which has an annual budget of $4.5 million.
“The governor knows that these financial losses would put the school out of business, but he has refused to back down,” said Eves, D-North Berwick. “This is an abuse of power that jeopardizes Maine children. The governor’s actions represent the worst kind of vendetta politics Maine has ever seen. If it goes unchecked, no legislator will feel safe in voting his conscience for fear that the governor will go after the legislator’s family and livelihood.”
Good Will-Hinckley, in Fairfield, announced June 9 that it had hired Eves as the school’s new president despite a last-minute intercession by LePage. On Wednesday, board Chairman Jack Moore announced the decision to withdraw the offer to Eves, who was scheduled to begin work next Wednesday.
“The basis for this decision is grounded in the institution’s desire not to be involved in political controversy that will divert attention away from our core mission of serving children and has the potential to jeopardize the future of our school,” Moore said in a prepared statement. “Good Will-Hinckley has a very dedicated staff. The board’s first priority is to act in the best interest of students and educators alike and the board’s actions reflect its unwavering commitment to them.”
LePage’s office didn’t respond to several requests for comment Wednesday night.
Moore said the school was immediately launching a new search for a president, and that the board would not comment further on the Eves decision.
Good Will-Hinckley operates the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in Fairfield, the first of five charter schools approved in Maine since 2011, along with other educational and social services programs.
Details were emerging Wednesday night about the funding issue. But a letter sent to Moore on June 18 from the Harold Alfond Foundation – a major donor to Good Will-Hinckley – and obtained by the Portland Press Herald refers to “the likely loss of $1,060,000 in state funding over the next two years” for residential programs at the school.
“First, we want to express the serious concern of the Harold Alfond Foundation regarding the future financial viability of (Good Will-Hinckley), given the likely state funding loss,” reads the letter from the foundation’s Gregory Powell. He goes on to say that the foundation was reviewing the school’s “budget and financial forecasts,” noting that half of the $5.5 million in potential grants from the foundation were contingent on the school achieving enrollment and other performance goals.
LePage had written a scathing letter to the school’s two board chairmen, attacking Eves’ qualifications and urging the school not to hire him, largely because he had been a critic of charter schools.
“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,” LePage wrote in early June. He went on to level personal criticisms at Eves, questioning his skills and saying he had not dealt honestly with LePage while working on the state budget.
“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.
In response to LePage’s letter, Eves acknowledged that he was not a strong supporter of charter schools and continued to have reservations about them. But he said his commitment to aiding children with troubled backgrounds outweighed those concerns.
Eves also declined at the time to criticize LePage for intervening in his hiring.
“He’s been a great supporter of the school,” Eves said June 9. “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.”
ATTORNEY SAYS EVES MAY SUE LEPAGE
Eves’ attorney, David Webbert, said in a phone interview Wednesday night that litigation against the governor is a possibility, adding that “there seems to be strong evidence of a civil rights claim.”
“Under the First Amendment, the governor is clearly prohibited from using the money of our state government to exact revenge on public officials because they do not vote the way the governor wants,” Webbert said in an additional statement. “This is not how Maine’s system of government is supposed to work. The governor’s tyrannical behavior threatens our democratic institutions.”
The governor’s actions, if true, are the latest example of how LePage has grown increasingly bold as he pursues his policy agenda and targets his opponents. The governor has berated and insulted lawmakers from both parties – including members of the Republican leadership – in recent months and has threatened to veto all legislation sent to his desk.
Earlier this year, a different education leader was forced out when the governor threatened to withhold funding. In January, John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System, resigned after LePage demanded his ouster and flat-funded the system in his budget.
The tactics have infuriated Democrats and caused considerable angst within Republican ranks at the State House. Among those critics is Sen. Roger Katz, a moderate Republican from Augusta who has clashed with LePage several times.
Katz said Wednesday night that LePage’s apparent intervention “goes beyond the political.”
“There is no question Mark is qualified to lead the school,” Katz wrote in an email. “This is personal, angry and vindictive. I sometimes don’t agree with (Eves), but he is a fine and honest man. More importantly, he is a husband and the father of three beautiful young kids who is trying to support his family. Political battles are one thing. Trying to ruin someone is quite another. This is unprecedented. Where does it all end?”
Despite LePage’s criticism, Eves, a licensed family counselor who has operated a private practice in York County for years and has worked with both at-risk youths as well as families, received a strong endorsement from the Good Will-Hinckley board when it announced his hiring at an annual salary of $120,000 plus benefits.
“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 at the time.
PROTECTING HIS LIVELIHOOD
Webbert, the employment law specialist who is representing Eves, said the speaker wasn’t looking for a battle with the governor, but had to protect his livelihood.
“He is now out of a job that he was counting on to support his three children and his family, and at some point you have to take care of your own personal welfare,” Webbert told The Associated Press.
The attorney is no stranger to conflict with LePage.
In 2013, Webbert filed a complaint against the governor with the U.S. Department of Labor, after LePage summoned a group of unemployment claims hearing officers to a Blaine House luncheon and berated them for allegedly deciding too many appeals cases in favor of workers.
In a review released in February 2014, the Labor Department effectively upheld the complaint, saying LePage’s action endangered the fair hearing process. The agency said it would be monitoring Maine’s performance in unemployment appeals to ensure that all parties were treated fairly.