September 30, 2013

For LePage's departed education chief, reform was a rocky road

Stephen Bowen, who has quit, had similar ideology, but memos show inner turmoil over slow progress.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

click image to enlarge

Then-Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen listens in May as he and Gov. Paul LePage unveil the state’s new A-F grading system for schools at the Maine State Library.

Joe Phelan/2013 Kennebec Journal photo

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Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, left, and Gov. Paul LePage unveil the state's new A-F grading system on May 1 at the Maine State Library.

Staff File Photo

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Read Stephen Bowen's emails about education reform

In December 2012, he warned administration officials not to participate in a meeting with Microsoft out of concern that it would look like the administration was influenced during a competitive request-for-proposals process for the state's laptop business. Administration officials attended the meeting. Bowen did not.

Bowen also attempted to persuade LePage to curb his vehement criticism of school superintendents.

"He can't keep blasting superintendents like this," Bowen wrote in a May 14 email to Jonathan Nass, LePage's education policy adviser. "He CAN say the (superintendent) associations opposed school choice, but we have good superintendents out there who we are going to alienate needlessly."

It's unclear if Bowen's message ever reached LePage. If it did, the governor ignored it. In January, he accused some superintendents of having "a character flaw" because some were collecting a salary and a state retirement pension.

LePage's criticism of superintendents is rooted in his belief that there are too many of them. He has called for one per county, while also cutting the number of school districts, a two-pronged approach designed to lower Maine's high per-pupil education spending.

Former Democratic Gov. John Baldacci had a similar view of the state's high school administrative costs. It became the impetus for a controversial district consolidation plan fiercely opposed by rural districts, many of which were -- and continue to be -- represented by Republican lawmakers.

In a June 5, 2012, memo to LePage, Bowen agreed that there were too many superintendents but warned that slashing administrative costs would eliminate only $15 million of the state's $2.1 billion education budget. If the administration wanted to cut $200 million or $300 million in education spending, he wrote, "we are simply going to have to close a lot of small schools." It was a thorny political issue, Bowen wrote, but the previous administration had achieved closures through the state's school construction process, forcing districts to regionalize before releasing state funds for new buildings.

The memo followed a series of exchanges between Bowen and Nass. LePage had demanded ways to reduce education spending. On May 14, LePage met with Bowen and Nass, detailing a list of complaints.

Later, Bowen emailed Nass, unsure of his directive.

"It is hard to track where he is going, even through the course of a single meeting," Bowen wrote.

LePage remained focused on education spending. On June 4, he requested a briefing. Bennett, his spokeswoman, called it for the morning of June 5. She had second thoughts after anticipating that LePage wasn't going to be happy with the results of the briefing; he had a public event scheduled later in the Hall of Flags honoring science, math and engineering students.

"Thinking about it a little more, can you update him after (the event)?" she wrote. "He needs to be in a good mood this morning."

Bennett apparently made the right call. Photos of the Hall of Flags event show LePage smiling and playing along with the students.

His mood changed during the education briefing. On June 9, Bowen emailed Nass, saying he might take another swing at the memo on cutting costs.

"The risk is that he yells at me/us again on it," he wrote.

Bowen, a former state legislator with a knack for policy details, appeared to find himself struggling to keep pace with the governor's desires. But, he said, LePage's door was always open to him.

"There was never a time when I asked to see the governor and he said 'no,' " Bowen said.

Bennett said last week that the governor and Bowen had different styles, but they were aligned on the end result.

Bowen, she said, came from the Legislature, where deals are made and compromise was common. LePage, she said, had high expectations.

"He sets the bar very high," Bennett said. "He often requests more than he knows he's going to receive. But he does it for a reason." 

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at:

smistler@pressherald.com

Twitter: @stevemistler

 

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Additional Photos

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Gov. Paul LePage and then-Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen, shown following instructions on whitewater rafting, were paddling in the same direction on education system reforms but hit a few rough rapids along the way.

David Leaming/2013 Morning Sentinel file

  


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