LEE, Maine — A pioneer in recruiting Asian students to attend Maine schools, Lee Academy Headmaster Bruce Lindberg is retiring effective June 30 because he is exhausted, he said Wednesday.
In a Skype conversation from The Philippines on Wednesday, the 62-year-old said he was homesick and feeling ground up by a hectic travel schedule that comes with overseeing high schools and other educational efforts in South Korea, The Philippines and China as well as in Lee.
“The job has just become overwhelming for me,” Lindberg said. “Lee needs someone there full-time. We tried to do it through technology and it was just too hard on everyone.”
Lindberg traveled to The Republic of the Philippines in February to oversee the launch of a K-12 Lee Academy at Subic Bay. What was supposed to be a three-month stay has become, thanks to recruiting success, a trip that might last into August, Lindberg said.
The Subic Bay Lee Academy started recruiting with about a dozen students on March 1. As of Wednesday, it had 190, with five new students registering that day, Lindberg said.
But for Lindberg, that meant a punishing schedule of overseeing operations at Subic during the day and communicating with school staff in Lee via email and Skype at night. Lindberg has also qualified for Diamond Medallion status with Delta Airlines’ SkyMiles Medallion program for the last five years, he said.
That means he has flown at least 125,000 miles since 2008.
Barry Webster, chairman of the Lee Academy board of directors, said he was “not surprised” at Lindberg’s intention to leave the academy, a private school that contracts with the state to educate high schoolers in the Lee area.
Webster credited Lindberg with pioneering an international student recruitment program starting in 2007 which allowed the private school to recently finish $3 million in campus renovations, maintain its enrollment and expand its academic offerings to include 16 Advanced Placement classes.
This occurred at a time when northern Maine schools face shrinking funding, enrollment and programming, forcing many school districts to consolidate or consider closing schools.
The recruitment hasn’t always gone smoothly. Lindberg disassociated Lee Academy from a school in China a few years ago after saying that the school’s officials weren’t following the Lee Academy curricula.
Most recently, his recruitment efforts left him overseas when Gov. Paul
LePage’s new grading system initiative for state schools gave Lee Academy an F, which Lindberg hotly disputes. The system, he said, grades only the school’s public school students from the Lee area, not its international and dorm students — about half the school’s population.
Lindberg called the grade meaningless and referred more detailed comment to other academy officials.
Lindberg was also dismayed when LePage criticized “double-dippers” — people who work full-time jobs and collect retirement benefits as former state employees — as suffering from “a character flaw.” LePage called the practice “unconscionable” and “absolutely disgusting.”
“I guess that is my frustration,” Lindberg said, “when the governor takes a potshot at people like me. I have brought business and revenue to Maine and now all of a sudden I am ridiculed? That is offensive to me. I have contributed to that retirement fund for 35 years. Why aren’t I eligible to draw from it?”
Besides drawing students and revenue to Lee Academy, the international student program helps support surrounding businesses and represents millions of dollars in untapped economic potential — namely, the parents of the international students, who are often newly rich and seeking investment opportunities in the U.S., Lindberg said.
Lindberg lashed out at state and local economic leaders in 2009 for failing to do more to capitalize on the opportunity, but nothing changed, he said.
Webster credited Lindberg with transforming Lee Academy from a regional school to an international business.
“Everything Lee Academy is today he has accomplished in the last eight years,” Webster said. “He is the one who has done that. The board has gone along with it.”
When he joined Lee Academy eight years ago, after 37 years in public schools, school officials told him that he would be the academy’s last headmaster if he didn’t find a way to increase funding and enrollment, Lindberg has said.
“The way the school was going, I feel that if we hadn’t had the revenue sources we have had over the last eight years, our school would be very understaffed and not providing the education for the local kids, due to less enrollment, less funding,” Webster said.
As of February, Lee Academy had 130 international students, paying $32,900 tuition each, among a total of 280 students enrolled. The University of Maine and a half-dozen high schools have worked with Lindberg or followed his example in seeking to recruit Asian students.
Millinocket’s Stearns High School has seven Asian students and has franchised educational efforts overseas that have Millinocket Superintendent Kenneth Smith trekking to China periodically. His school system will draw about $100,000 in revenue from its franchising this year.
“He has done a great job for Lee Academy and he has been a tremendous help to Millinocket in establishing our international program. I am sorry to hear he has decided to retire,” Smith said Wednesday. “Hopefully he will continue in some fashion to advance the cause of international relations.”
Lindberg said he takes some comfort in the efforts of other public and private schools to tap into the Far East.
“I applaud the work of Millinocket leaders, the schools of Dexter. I think that they are starting to look at ways to strengthen their budgets without putting it on the backs of the taxpayer. That’s wonderful,” Lindberg said.
He hopes that his work at Lee will be continued by his successor.
“There were a lot of people who took this journey on this path. I am among many,” he said.