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Brunswick school chief apologizes for letter, but not for criticism of LePage

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Brunswick school chief apologizes for letter, but not for criticism of LePage

BRUNSWICK — Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski issued a public apology Tuesday for using his welcome letter to staff as the medium to criticize Gov. Paul LePage's education policy.

But he also said he stands by his opinion.

"I will sincerely apologize for using the 'Back to School' format, to the Brunswick community and the governor, yet I will continue to stand behind the message of my letter and interview," Perzanoski said in a prepared statement.

School Board Chairman James Grant said that while it's not clear whether the board will discuss the superintendent's letter at its Sept. 12 meeting, the School Department's law firm found that Perzanoski didn't violate any school policies.

"There's been no policy violation as we can determine," Grant said, referring to the findings by Drummond Woodsum, the law firm that represents the department.

Corinne Perreault, vice chairwoman of the board, said she doesn't know how the board will address the issue, or if it will, until she and Grant create the meeting's agenda next Wednesday with Perzanoski.

"I will certainly listen to what they have to say," Perzanoski said Wednesday.

The superintendent's welcome letter, which was sent to School Department staff on Aug. 17, created controversy because of the tone used to criticize LePage's education policy.

"Our illustrious Governor has been in the news again, singing the praises of public education," Perzanoski sarcastically wrote. "The legislators passed new laws on bullying this spring but they failed to include the Blaine House. Remediation is on the governor's mind and I agree, he needs remediation in civility, public speaking, telling the truth, diplomacy and following the law. I think we should challenge him to take the SAT and then make the results public."

Perzanoski's letter criticized the governor's efforts to allow public funding of private and religious schools – an effort that most recently failed in the Legislature. But the superintendent also offered a deal to "equal the playing field."

"It may be time to stop fighting and give them what they want under the following conditions: every school must hire certified, high quality teachers; every school must accept all students who register; every student must be part of the statewide assessment; every school must follow state and federal mandates," Perzanoski wrote.

Adrienne Bennett, the governor's spokeswoman, called Perzanoski's comments "wildly inappropriate" and "defamatory."

"A welcome back to school letter to employees should focus on what’s best for students and teachers, and how to provide a quality education," Bennett said in a press release. "Instead, this superintendent decided that taxpayer dollars were best used to personally attack the Governor."

Perzanoski on Wednesday said the letter didn't "happen in a vacuum," adding that he received support from educators who are facing similar problems in other states.

Earlier in February, the Department of Education announced Brunswick would receive $1.2 million less for its annual state education subsidy than last year – a reduction that was, in part, caused by declining enrollment due to the closure of the Brunswick Naval Air Station.

The superintendent said the state and federal governments haven't followed through with promises they made to public schools.

For example, Perzanoski said, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act was passed in 1975, Congress "promised to pay" for 40 percent of the costs associated with students who have disabilities. But the federal government has never paid close to what it originally promised, he said.

"I just want them to fulfill their promises," Perzanoski said.

At least two School board members agreed with the substance of the superintendent's letter.

"I think it was about time that an educator spoke out against the unwarranted abuse the governor has heaped on Maine’s educational system," Michelle Small, a board member at large, wrote in an e-mail. "Because socioeconomic status is the greatest determinant of success in school, I think that the best thing the governor could do for the schools is to bring a halt to his war on the poor."

Brenda Clough, a School Board from the town's 2nd District, said Perzanoski's letter was not political and instead focused on the reality of the state education system.

"The purpose of the letter was to be a welcome back to school letter. He wasn’t making any political statements. He was stating the reality: here’s what’s happening at the state level," Clough said.

Matt Corey, who represents the 3rd District on the board, said that while he understands Perzanoski's frustration with LePage, "the tone and tenor could have been better."

However, Corey said, there are more important things for the School Department to do.

"The reality is we have a lot of bigger issues to face in Brunswick," he said.

For instance, plans for major renovations at Coffin School and Brunswick Junior High School will go to referendum next year, and the elementary schools will use a new math program for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Despite the reaction to his statement last week – while he was supposed to be on vacation, no less – Perzanoski said he hopes his letter will have some positive consequences for the schools.

"No one likes to live with this much attention, but sometimes it's necessary for a short amount of time," the superintendent said. "I'm not going to lose my voice for public education and the people that work for it."

Dylan Martin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or dmartin@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DylanLJMartin.