A couple of weeks before Christmas 2012, two mid-level staffers from the Foundation for Excellence in Education – a Florida-based education reform organization founded and chaired by Jeb Bush – were preparing to fly up to Maine for meetings with state education officials here.

It was awkward timing, as Gov. Paul LePage’s administration was under fire after revelations that it had allowed foundation officials to ghost-write many of the state’s virtual charter school policies – including draft legislation, strategic policy goals, and the text of one of LePage’s executive orders – even though their organization was deeply entwined with many of the companies that stood to cash in on the proposed changes.

LePage insisted they stay and dine at the Blaine House and, weeks later, invited them to help organize and execute his March 2013 education summit, where foundation officials had prominent speaking spots. In the coming months, Education Department officials continued to work closely with their foundation counterparts, coordinating their media strategies, meeting at conferences, and securing grant funds to further shared goals in Maine.

By early July, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen was even cautioning staff that visiting foundation officials needed “to stay behind the scenes” because “the public face of our reform work needs to always be a Maine one.”

But just a few months later, this close partnership had all but evaporated as the foundation – which helped shape the LePage administration’s education policies – became a political liability. Today the department itself confirms it has not solicited the foundation’s assistance in nearly two years.

Jeb Bush, now running for the Republican presidential nomination, has made education reform the centerpiece of his political career. As governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007, he championed what became known as the “Florida model,” featuring vigorous testing, school vouchers, and creation of taxpayer-financed for-profit, nonprofit and virtual charter schools. He created the foundation in 2007 and used it to promote the Florida model in other states.

At the height of its influence in Maine in 2012 and early 2013, the foundation shaped large portions of LePage’s education agenda, including the successful introduction of virtual charter schools and the “A-F” grading of public schools.

The collapse was sudden.

Emails and other documents acquired through a public records request show close, constant contact and collaboration between Bush’s foundation and senior Education Department officials right into August 2013, when two events appear to have weakened their bond.

The first was the resignation of a close Jeb Bush and foundation ally, Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, one of the nation’s most prominent champions of “A-F grading” of schools, who had delivered the keynote address at LePage’s education summit in Augusta a few months earlier. An Associated Press investigation had revealed that when he was commissioner in Indiana, Bennett and his staff had scrambled to change that state’s school grading formula to ensure a charter school run by an influential donor to Bennett’s political campaigns received an “A” rather than a “C.”

RELATIONSHIP COOLS WITH BOWEN’S DEPARTURE

Shortly thereafter Bowen – a former staffer at the Maine Heritage Policy Center who had forged the relationship with the foundation and had previously described Bennett as a role model – announced he, too, was stepping down, and would take a job at the Council of Chief State School Officers, where Bennett was a board member. His last day of work was Sept. 12, 2013.

A week later, a foundation official wrote the Education Department, checking in about the “pretty robust plan for A-F school grade next steps” they had had in July. “Given all that’s unfolded since we met in July, I haven’t been able to move ahead all of the things that we’d discussed,” the department’s communications director at the time, Samantha Warren, responded on Sept. 20. “Alas, it is not the same without Steve here.”

The foundation paid for Education Department officials to attend its annual conference that October in Boston, where Bush delivered the opening keynote address and funders included K12 Inc. and Pearson, companies then seeking to operate taxpayer-financed virtual charter schools here. Department officials haven’t attended their conferences since.

When a foundation official wrote Warren in late February 2014 suggesting it send an official to Maine “to help brainstorm” about messaging around the upcoming release of the second “A-F grades” for schools or, failing that, “have a conference call or send some random thoughts to you,” Warren demurred.

“I’m not sure what support we specifically need,” Warren wrote back 11 days later. “There is a new climate here given our very well-respected and non-controversial ‘new’ commissioner” – longtime state education board member Jim Rier – so “grades will be seen as less threatening and more as the transparent tool for awareness and accountability that we intend them to be.”

Foundation officials reached out again May 6, offering to “touch base on how we can best support your efforts after grades are made public.” Warren again turned them down, and rejected the foundation’s subsequent offer to issue a news release in support of the new grades.

“In sharp contrast to last year, we’ve been able to maintain very positive coverage around the rollout of this year’s grades because we haven’t connected it to any larger national reform work,” she explained in a May 14 response. “Honestly, I do not think a statement from the foundation would be helpful to us or our messaging here in Maine at this time, however, we really respect the work the foundation is doing and the importance of school grades becoming more widely used across the county (sic).”

After May 2014, correspondence between the foundation and the department quickly dwindled to the receipt of mass mailings and short, infrequent exchanges of policy accomplishments and news releases.

MOST RECENT YEARS MARKED BY TURNOVER

Officials at the Foundation for Excellence in Education did not respond to requests for comment on reasons for the changed relationship. Bush’s campaign spokeswoman, Kristy Campbell, said she would look into it, but did not respond to follow-up inquiries.

There has been considerable turnover at the Department of Education since 2013, with Warren, Bowen and other key officials having left state government. Spokeswoman Anne Gabbianelli said the current staff had the understanding that the department “did not engage” support from the foundation under Bowen’s successor, Rier, who served from September 2013 to December 2014, when he resigned for medical reasons.

Rier’s replacement has also not availed himself of the foundation’s help, she said.

“Acting Commissioner Tom Desjardin has not engaged in FEE support with the understanding that FEE’s help was guiding as needed, not receiving their continual monitoring or support,” Gabbianelli wrote via email. “The Department’s relationship with FEE was and could be as active as needed.”

Rier and Desjardin also chose not to join Chiefs for Change, a small group of “anti-establishment” state and big city education commissioners that was created and administered by the foundation. Bowen had been an active member of the group, which at its height had only eight other members.

In February of this year, the department announced that it was suspending the A-F grading system for a year and a half because Maine students would be taking a different type of standardized test. It intends to release new report cards on public schools in the fall of 2016, after students have taken the new Smarter Balanced assessment test for two years.

The emails newly acquired by the Maine Sunday Telegram show that, by contrast, relations with the foundation remained close right up until Bowen’s departure.

FOUNDATION WAS A CENTRAL PLAYER

Between the fall of 2011 and early 2013, the foundation was a central player in the creation of a wide range of the LePage administration’s education policies. They forwarded Bowen draft teacher effectiveness laws; offered to draft documentation to support the letter grading of schools; advised him on alternative teacher certification and open enrollment school choice legislation; drafted the governor’s executive order on online schools; tried to secure funding to hire new staff people for the department who could help implement newly passed teacher effectiveness and standards-based diploma laws; provided many of the speakers for the governor’s 2013 education summit; and paid for LePage, Bowen and other officials to attend the foundation’s conferences, including a November 2012 meeting that reportedly sold the governor on “A-F’ grading of schools.

The additional emails – part of a public records request for all correspondence between Department of Education officials and the foundation in 2013, 2014 and January 2015 – show the administration continued to lean on the foundation through the rest of Bowen’s tenure. This included:

 Soliciting suggestions on how to organize LePage’s 2013 education summit, including lists of possible attendees and weekly conference calls between foundation officials and top aides to LePage.

Receiving a $200,000 grant to support a temporary position for department spokesman David Connerty-Marin, to make way for his replacement, Warren, who was previously the spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection.

Foundation staffer Adam Peshek “coordinating with LePage’s office regarding the OpEds” written by a foundation board member in support of “A-F” grading and submitted to Maine newspapers.

Receiving talking points to help do damage control when Florida Education Commissioner Bennett’s school grading scandal broke and apprising foundation officials of a Washington Post reporter’s inquires to the department on the matter.

Welcoming foundation staff to fly up to Maine for “brainstorming sessions” on rolling out “A-F” grading.

Receiving resources for communicating with the public on the merits of Common Core standards.

Bush resigned from the foundation late last year in preparation for his presidential run, turning the reins over to former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who had served on its board since January 2013.