PORTLAND — Charter schools, funding for higher education and the University of Maine System were topics of debate Tuesday at a forum for the five gubernatorial candidates who will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot.

The symposium on higher education at Unum in Portland featured a short series of questions for the candidates, followed by questions from the audience. More than 300 people listened closely as the candidates outlined their education plans.

Republican Paul LePage, the mayor of Waterville, talked about his idea of adding a 13th year of school so students could leave high school with associate’s degrees.

“It’s going to require the community college and the K-12 system to work much more closely,” he said. “Furthermore, I believe in charter schools. We can do more with less.”

Democrat Libby Mitchell, Maine’s Senate president, said she doesn’t support charter schools; she wants all schools in Maine to have the money they need to strive for excellence.

Only Mitchell and independent Shawn Moody said they would not want charter schools – publicly funded schools that operate independently of the state – in Maine.

Mitchell said she would free up more money for education by renegotiating the state’s liquor lease contract early and putting the money into a trust fund. She said 4,000 people are waiting to get into the state’s community colleges, and it’s difficult for adults to go back to school.

“Many of those adults are the product of an older economy in Maine,” she said. “I think, as state policy makers, we need to make it as easy as possible to find alternative ways of getting education beyond high school.”

More than once, independent Eliot Cutler referred to the difficult budget times ahead and said it’s not practical to believe that more funding will be easily accessible.

Cutler, a strong supporter of charter schools and a candidate who has proposed a longer school year and merit pay, said the state must do something different to get better results.

“How in the world can you think that what we’ve been doing and the way we’ve been doing it is working?” he asked. “We need to throw open the doors, open the windows, we need to reform and transform education in the state of Maine.”

He then criticized Mitchell and Moody for opposing charter schools, saying Maine is one of only 10 states that don’t allow them.

“Is there something about the water in the state of Maine that makes us different?” he asked. “What are we afraid of?”

Moody drew laughs from the crowd when he responded to LePage’s proposed 13th year of high school.

“I think there’s a reason there’s not a 13th floor in a hotel,” he said. “I don’t know about that grade 13.”

He then said the university system has become unaffordable for many Mainers.

“The first thing we need to do is lower the cost of operations for the campuses, not merge them, but lower the cost of operations,” he said.

LePage harshly criticized the university system.

“The University of Maine System has done a horrible job in two areas,” he said, in working with adults to help them further their education and in marketing the system to students outside the state.

Independent Kevin Scott of Andover said a privately funded endowment allows his town to offer students who finish high school $2,000 each year to help pay for college.

He said the program was expanded recently to include adults. “That model is local,” he said. “It works. It’s mostly private.”

That led Cutler to joke that he would move everyone in the state to Andover so they could take advantage of the program.

“However, failing that, we really, really shouldn’t let anyone today escape the net of postsecondary education,” he said. “We just can’t let it happen.”

MaineToday Media State House Reporter Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: [email protected]