AUGUSTA — Superintendents of two southern Maine high schools are disputing allegations by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration that they don’t allow military recruiters to wear uniforms in the schools.
The top administrators at high schools in Sanford and North Berwick both said they allow recruiters at Sanford and Noble high schools.
“We were very surprised that would be considered,” said David Theoharides, Sanford’s superintendent. “They’re always allowed in here.”
L.D. 1503, supported by the state Department of Education, would require public schools to provide access to uniformed recruiters. The Legislature’s Education Committee rejected the bill after hearing assertions from teacher and administrator organizations that it was unnecessary.
But the bill has sailed through the Legislature, winning initial passage in the House and Senate last week. It awaits final votes in both chambers.
Military veterans in the House made impassioned pleas for the bill from the floor last Tuesday. Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, a former Marine who served in Iraq, found it “disgusting” that schools were barring uniformed recruiters.
“We bury these guys in their uniforms, but they’re not allowed to wear them to schools?” said an incredulous Rep. Peter Doak, R-Columbia Falls, who was a Green Beret in the Vietnam War.
But if there is a problem, it has yet to be verified.
In a press release after that vote, House Republicans spokesman David Sorensen said the bill was motivated by military recruiters who approached LePage, citing seven schools with access issues. The recruiters “declined to name specific schools because they didn’t want to harm their relationships with the schools,” Sorensen wrote. The recruiters haven’t been publicly identified.
Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen did not name any schools when he testified in favor of the bill before the Education Committee. But Bowen did name Sanford and Noble high schools in an email Thursday to House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, after Berry asked for documentation of the administration’s allegation.
Bowen wrote that “a National Guard recruiter in southern Maine reported that recruiters were required to dress in civilian clothes when working at Noble High School in North Berwick and at Sanford High School.”
“The fact that there are schools (that) do have this policy was enough, the governor thought, to warrant a bill,” Bowen wrote to Berry.
A copy of the Bown-Berry email exchange was provided to the Portland Press Herald by Adrienne Bennett, spokeswoman for the governor.
But the two superintendents say they have no such policy.
Steve Connolly, superintendent for RSU 60, which includes Noble High School in Berwick, said in an email interview that the school has no written policy on what recruiters wear when visiting the school. He wrote that he watched students do pull-ups and push-ups in the school lobby recently during a recruiting event attended by a uniformed Marine.
Rep. Anne-Marie Mastraccio, D-Sanford, a Sanford school committee member for 12 years before her first legislative term this year, said she contacted Theoharides, the Sanford superintendent, after hearing that the school barred uniformed recruiters.
Theoharides told her that was not the case, and that nobody in state government called him to ask about the school’s policy regarding recruiters.
“My initial response was, ‘That’s ridiculous,’ ” Theoharides said.
Mastraccio blasted Bowen, saying it was irresponsible to support a bill without checking facts.
“That’s a person who doesn’t want to know the truth,” Mastraccio said of Bowen. “I sat and verified it in five minutes in my district.”
Mastraccio provided the Press Herald with emails between her and Bowen. He wrote her on Friday, saying the department “was told by a recruiter directly that Sanford High School did not allow uniformed recruiters.”
“I wish I could explain the disconnect, but we did get this information directly from a recruiter,” Bowen wrote to Mastraccio. “I will check with the recruiters again and see what I find out.”
In his email to Berry, Bowen said he didn’t have a formal list of schools that restrict recruiting visits developed by speaking with schools, and the information came from the recruiter.
Samantha Warren, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said Friday she believed the administration didn’t check with schools on the information before putting the bill forward.
“When members of the military who are willing to sacrifice their lives come to us with concerns and they match up with anecdotal stories we’ve heard, we thought that was enough,” she said.
Rep. Brian Hubbell, D-Bar Harbor, an Education Committee member, said Friday that he asked Bowen at a May hearing on the bill to provide information about schools barring uniformed recruiters.
Hubbell said he never got it, and lack of evidence is why the bill went down in committee.
“This whole thing about, ‘I have a list but I can’t tell you what it is,’ smacks of McCarthyism in my book,” Hubbell said. “None of us object at all on the principle (that) recruiters having ordinary access to kids in uniform. I think ultimately, it should be a local decision to set the policy.”
But LePage officials say Democrats are making unnecessary political hay over a bill that passed overwhelmingly. Bennett and Warren said they don’t think information was the problem for a few Democrats.
“They just didn’t’ t believe us, so they thought it wasn t needed, Bennett said. It s about rejecting a governor s bill more than not having information available.
Peter Rogers, a spokesman for the Maine Army National Guard, said the Department of Education asked the Guard for information about recruiters in schools.
In reply, Command Sgt. Maj. Richard Hannibal sent an email to Bowen outlining certain access problems, from limits on visits to uniform issues. Bennett provided a copy of the email to the newspaper in response to a Freedom of Access request.
Hannibal’s email doesn’t mention Sanford, but it lists Noble among seven schools with other access issues, including limitations on recruiter visits.
Hannibal told the Press Herald in an interview that while he supports the governor’s bill, current law “doesn’t stop us from doing our jobs.”
He said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of his email, as he didn’t have it in front of him.
Rogers said that almost all schools are welcoming, but he has heard of problems with uniformed recruiters in Sanford and in other locations in southern Maine, although he couldn t provide details of those problems or the names of those other schools.
“To ask a soldier to take his uniform off before he goes into a school, it’s kind of a slap in the face,” Rogers said.
A regional U.S. Army spokesman said that branch of the military has no problems in Maine.
“In fact, quite the opposite,” said J.C. Allard, chief of advertising and public affairs for the Army’s New England Recruiting Battalion. “Schools would want to know who s on their campus and that uniform is a dead giveaway.”
At the public hearing before the Education Committee in May, education groups testified against the bill, calling it an unneeded mandate.
Cornelia Brown, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, said federal standards allow recruiters to have equitable access to high-school students, alongside colleges or prospective employers.
But Bennett, the governor’s spokeswoman, said even if there are no problems in Maine, the bill is worthwhile.
“We’re just looking for some uniformity here,” Bennett said. “It’s both troubling and baffling that Democrats are making this an issue.”
Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville, an Education Committee member and Vietnam veteran, said he would support the bill even if just one school was affected.
“There are people in our society that don’t hold the same ideas that I do. Some of them are school administrators and schoolteachers, Johnson said. “The public school system ought to know it’s a civic responsibility to honor the military.”
Mastraccio, the Sanford lawmaker, said she thought Tuesday’s floor debate was meant to make Democrats look like they don’t support veterans.
“We were set up,” she said. “I think it puts us in a light we don’t deserve to be in.”
Michael Shepherd — 370-7652