SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday celebrated the opening of the state’s first virtual charter school, saying Maine Connections Academy represents a new opportunity to reach students for whom traditional schools don’t work.

He also used the forum to criticize traditional public school systems in the state, saying they’re “about the money” and “union contracts” and are losing sight of the best interests of the students with whom they’re entrusted.

“We’ve done everything we can [to improve schools],” LePage said. “We’ve tried to work with the education system. We’ve tried to embarrass the education system. We’ve argued with the education system.”

The head of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Maine Education Association, took umbrage at the governor’s remarks, decrying what he called LePage’s “constant attacks” against the organization’s members.

“I truly question why the governor would want to embarrass our public schools on purpose,” MEA Executive Director Rob Walker said. “His admission today proves he does not have the best interest of our students or schools in mind when he proposes legislation.”

Maine Connections Academy held its ceremonial ribbon-cutting and inaugural open house Thursday morning in South Portland, where the school’s teachers and administrators communicate with students from as far away as Fort Kent and Kittery using an array of Internet programs.

Principal Karl Francis said the school, which is the first of its kind in Maine, fills an important need in the state.

“People come to us for a wide variety of reasons,” he told attendees of the event, held outside the academy headquarters in an office building on South Portland’s John Roberts Road near the Maine Mall. “Some of them are home-schooled students. … Some of them need more flexible scheduling. Some of them have medical problems.”

Francis singled out one student in attendance, a competitive golfer, whose training and travel obligations make following a traditional school’s weekly schedule too difficult. Another battles social anxiety issues, he said.

“The goal at the end of the day is to educate the student, so one size does not fit all — never did, never will. So we have to be open-minded. We have to be willing to challenge the status quo. We have to be willing to try things, to look beyond our reaches to see if and when there are opportunities that we can include,” LePage said Thursday.

“Because of Maine’s rural geography, many of Maine’s students didn’t have any option beyond their local schools,” said Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, the chairwoman of the Maine Connections Academy board and one of the lead co-sponsors of the 2011 law legalizing charter schools in the state.

The introduction of a virtual charter school late this summer was met with concern by several traditional public school systems across the state, which were billed roughly $7,000 in tuition for each local students who opted to enroll in the online academy instead of attend their nearest brick-and-mortar school.

Because geography wasn’t a factor for students to enroll in the virtual school — unlike other charter schools that have been established in recent years — several of those local districts weren’t able to predict the financial impact the new academy would have before developing their budgets for the year.

Volk, who is running for state senator in District 30 against Gorham Democrat James Boyle, said her board will work with local school officials and the Maine Charter Commission to find a solution to the funding problems.

“We’re going to work together with them to fix some of the bugs in the system, such as how the billing works,” Volk said Thursday. “We’re looking forward to working with them to smooth out the road so we can focus on providing an education.”

LePage, who is running for re-election in a tightly contested three-way race that also includes Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud and independent Eliot Cutler, criticized traditional public school systems for not focusing enough on providing an education.

“Mainers know the most important person in the classroom is the student. And I have this argument all the time with the union. They say the teacher’s the most important,” the governor said Thursday.

“Fortunately, I was in a position where I could help … our children and put them into private schools,” he added later. “Not because the public schools weren’t valuable. That’s not the issue. The issue I have with public school systems is that it’s about the money; it’s about the union contract, it’s about the union.”

That sentiment didn’t sit well with Walker, a retired teacher, or Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association.

Kilby-Chesley told the Bangor Daily News on Thursday that LePage has only met with her organization once, in May 2013, in his nearly four years in office.

“At that meeting, there wasn’t any such discussion of priorities of teachers over students,” she said. “The governor has never had any argument with us over the importance of students and can’t because students are our teachers’ top priority. MEA members and all educators do our jobs working with students because we know that our students are Maine’s future. Our priority each and every day is helping every student learn.”

Kilby-Chesley also bristled at the insinuation that “charter and virtual schools are somehow ‘better’” than traditional public schools, arguing most available data tells a different story.

“Gov. LePage’s constant attacks and continued funding cuts to public schools prove he is not invested in the majority of students in this state who attend public schools,” Walker added. “When Gov. LePage attacks the Maine Education Association, he is attacking the members, the 24,000 teachers, custodians, bus drivers, food service employees who work hard each day to provide a well-rounded education for the our children so they can learn the skills they need for the jobs of the future.”

LePage defended his track record on education Thursday, saying his administration has spent more on schools than any previous administration in Maine history and lauding the introduction of charter schools as a way to expand education options for Maine students with different needs.

“The different approaches to education — those are all successful beyond our wildest dreams,” he said. “I don’t know why people aren’t just saying, ‘OK, you’ve got a good system. Let’s embrace it.’”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.