Ban lifted on speech by Obama

Posted Sept. 06, 2009, at 8:23 p.m.

LINCOLN, Maine — Students at public schools in Lincoln, Chester and Mattawamkeag will be allowed to watch President Barack Obama’s back-to-school address on Tuesday if teachers elect to air it in their classrooms.

RSU 67 Superintendent Michael Marcinkus on Saturday rescinded a memo he sent the day before to teachers, administrative staff and board members that prohibited the airing of the 18-minute noontime address.

Marcinkus said on Sunday that his initial memo was “ill-advised.”

“It was a mistake,” he said. “There is no way I’m going to impose censorship in my schools.”

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Before Marcinkus reconsidered his position, RSU 67 was at least the second school unit in Maine to ban the president’s address.

The Web site of the U.S. Department of Education states that, in his address, “The president will challenge students to work hard, set education goals, and take responsibility for their learning.”

Obama initially said he would ask American students to submit essays offering their opinions and suggestions for improving the nation. More recently, the White House has indicated the president will instead ask students to write about the importance of education.

Some conservative critics say Obama is trying to promote a political agenda and overstepping his bounds, taking the federal government too far into public school business.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a potential presidential contender in 2012, has called Obama’s speech “uninvited” and said the president’s move raises questions of content and motive.

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Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, said he understood “some of the concern, because, you know, people say, ‘Oh, here’s another Washington takeover.’”

“But of course the president of the United States should be able to address students. And of course, parents and teachers should decide in what context,” said Alexander.

The memo Marcinkus sent Friday afternoon read, in part:

“I have fielded phone calls and emails from local citizens very concerned that this is too political and the president is abusing his status. After due consideration, unless things change before the speech next week, I am directing that the school not participate in watching the production that day.”

The memo also stated that “the request by the president needs to be revised to a more ‘neutral’ non-threatening request such as how can education help students achieve their goals.”

Marcinkus said he began getting negative feedback Friday evening from teachers and others in the community expressing opposition to his directive, and on Saturday he issued a second e-mail, rescinding the ban.

“I’m all for listening to the president,” he said in a telephone interview Sunday. “I think we should respect the office, period.”

Among those who contacted Marcinkus on Saturday was state Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, whose district includes the communities of RSU 67.

“I told him I was shocked at his decision,” Schneider said Sunday. “The e-mail gave me great concern about censoring a sitting, duly-elected president. I don’t care what party you’re from, it’s undemocratic.”

Schneider said Marcinkus was “very big about it,” admitted to having acted in haste to prohibit the broadcast and agreed to rescind his directive.

Schneider also contacted Gov. John Baldacci, who, she said, was “very concerned” about the matter. She also attempted to contact the state’s education commissioner, Susan Gendron, but was unsuccessful.

Schneider said that while schools should be governed primarily at the local level, she felt it would be appropriate for the state to issue a statement rejecting censorship of the president’s address.

“This is foolish partisan nonsense by people who care more about dividing this country than they do about our democracy,” Schneider said of the controversy surrounding Obama’s speech.

RSU 67 board member Regginal Adams said Sunday that he had not seen either memo. He said the board’s policy is not to “micromanage” the superintendent and that Marcinkus’ actions were within the scope of his authority.

“We hire these people, we pay them good money, and I think we have to trust them,” he said. The same principle should apply to the elected president of the United States, he said.

Adams said he has school-age grandchildren and that he would want them to see the president’s address. But school may not be the best setting, he said.

“I would want the children to be part of the political process, but I would want to be there as a parent, to answer their questions and to talk about the issues,” he said.

Adams, who is a pastor at the Calvary Temple Assembly, a Pentecostal church in East Millinocket, said Obama’s presidency has thus far failed to fulfill its promise of uniting the country and has instead worsened an already broad partisan divide.

The Kennebec Journal on Saturday reported that schools in Gardiner-based RSU 11 will not air Obama’s address.

Superintendent Paul Knowles said his decision was based on objections from parents. He encouraged parents who want their children to hear the address to record it, according to the report.

The newspaper quoted a state Department of Education spokesman as saying that Commissioner Gendron believes “every president — regardless of political affiliation — should address students every year.”

Obama’s speech to American students will be broadcast live at noon Tuesday, Sept. 8, on the White House Web site and on C-SPAN.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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