WATERVILLE — The governor addressed about 150 eighth-graders Wednesday and told them college isn’t necessarily the right choice for everyone.

Gov. Paul LePage was the keynote speaker for Career Conversations, a five-week program at Waterville Junior High School that featured talks from career professionals — an engineer, a lawyer, a college professor and many more — to encourage students to look toward the future and help them transition to high school, according to program organizer and school counselor Ashley Pullen.

LePage spoke for nearly 25 minutes in the Mini Auditorium. He asked students to consider a wide range of options for their future.

“What we have done in the last 40 years is … we’ve gone to academics. We took a path that all children should go to college, and … that’s not at all the way we should look at it,” he said.

“When I was your age, what I wanted to be — this is the honest truth — I wanted to be a Pepsi-Cola truck driver. I really thought that was going to be my career path; and by the time I got out of high school, I decided I wanted to study a little more. I liked accounting and numbers, and that’s the path I took; but it’s not for everyone,” he said.

LePage said the focus of Maine’s education system has shifted away from teaching technical skills to focusing solely on academics. That shift could be responsible for a drop in graduation rates, he said.

“Forty years ago, Maine had a very high graduation rate. We used to have almost 90 percent,” he said. “Today, it’s like 75 percent.”

Maine’s high school graduation rate in the 2010-11 school year, the most recent available, was 83 percent, according to the Maine Department of Education website. A request for historical data for graduation rates wasn’t available at press time.

In February, LePage announced a proposal to strengthen technical education in Maine schools. LePage explained Wednesday what he hopes the plan will accomplish.

“We’re trying to find a broader spectrum, more opportunities for you to select a future,” he said. “We think that technical education is very good education.”

By training workers in the public education system, Maine could attract companies and stem the tide of young people who leave the state in search of work, he said.

“The biggest reason I ran for governor is I want my children to stay in Maine. I’d like to see all of you stay in Maine, but right now it’s difficult to have really good jobs in Maine,” he said. “We are pushing to create more industrial and commercial jobs so we can keep our kids here.”

LePage encouraged the students to study hard and be their best.

“Whether you want to stay in school and go to academic universities, or you want to go to technical school, or you want to be a race car driver, whatever you do, do it well,” he said.

The governor then faced tough questions from the eighth-graders.

One student asked whether the governor planned to cut education spending. LePage said no.

“The state of Maine is putting more money into education, but the federal government is putting less money in,” he said. “The state of Maine spends more on education than over 42 states. We spend nearly $14,000 per student, … whereas some states spend as low as $10,000 per student.”

Maine Department of Education spokesman Matthew Stone agreed with the governor’s figures.

“There are a number of ways to calculate the per-pupil expenditure and, in most calculations, Maine is within the top 10 to 15 states,” Stone said.

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures, about five states spend less than $9,000 per student.

Another student asked LePage to address rumors that Maine schools might close because of a lack of funding.

“I doubt it,” he replied. LePage explained that the state has enough money to keep the schools open until May 1, so the state needs to find money only for May and June to continue the school year without cancellations.

“However, they’re going to have to find more money for next year,” he said.

Another student asked LePage what he doesn’t like about his job.

“The press,” he said. “Reading newspapers in the state of Maine is like paying somebody to tell you lies.”

Ben McCanna — 861-9239

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