Gov. Paul LePage’s budget unveiling Friday produced one non-numerical story: He used the occasion to call on the president of the Maine Community College System to resign.

John Fitzsimmons “knows I’m looking to make a change,’ LePage said. “In four years, I’ve asked for things and I’ve got nothing.”

Attempts to contact Fitzsimmons after LePage’s late-afternoon comments were unsuccessful.

LePage never provided specifics on his problems with Fitzsimmons at the budget briefing, but his press secretary said there were two main reasons for seeking to replace Fitzsimmons, who has headed the system since 1990.

Adrienne Bennett said the community college system pulled out of a favorite LePage project, the Bridge Year Program, after only a year. The Bridge Year allows a high school student to earn college credits before they graduate.

It’s a way for a student to go to college with some credits already accumulated, potentially shortening the time – and money – spent in college.

And, she said, Fitzsimmons hasn’t yet set up a system for transferring credits between colleges. In Maine, some credits earned in community college don’t transfer to another system, such as the UMaine system.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the Senate chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee, said LePage’s comments caught him off-guard.

“This is the first with me witnessing something like this,” he said.

On the Bridge Year program, Langley confirmed the community colleges stopped participating after a one-year pilot program. Fitzsimmons, he said, seemed most concerned about the loss of tuition revenue that the Bridge Year created, and the decision discouraged Langley, who wrote the legislation that created the program.

Langley said the first two graduates of the program earned an associate’s degree in one semester after earning 30 college credits during high school. An associate’s degree usually requires two years to complete.

Ironically, Langley said Fitzsimmons wrote him this week, expressing an interest in having the community colleges work with the Bridge Year program again.

Langley wouldn’t say whether he thinks Fitzsimmons should resign, However, he did say that a tenure of eight to 10 years for a college system president is probably good for maintaining vitality in the system.

On the issue of transferring credits, Rep. Matthea Daughtry, D-Brunswick, another member of the committee, said the slow pace of work on the issue has been disconcerting, but she said it might be a bit too much suggest that Fitzsimmons should resign over the issue.

“They just started working on it,” Daughtry said. “They’re moving towards it, but I agree with the frustration. We’re behind a lot of states on it.” Like the Bridge Year program, making credits earned in one system transferable to another is a cost issue, Daughtry said, because students can take one or two years of courses in a lower-cost community college before transferring to the University of Maine system to complete a degree. If one system rejects the work done in a course in another system, that approach doesn’t make sense.

But it may be unfair to blame Fitzsimmons, Daughtry said, because the problem is representative of a dysfunction dual system.

“We need, basically, a family therapist,” she said.

Daughtry also said that she worked on a college cost commission with Fitzsimmons, who impressed her as hard-working and diligent.

Beyond that, Daughtry said that the way LePage handled the situation is troubling. If he wants to replace Fitzsimmons, she said, there are better ways to pursue that without resorting to side comments in a budget briefing.

“It’s not good decorum to announce this during a budget meeting,” she said. “I wouldn’t support it the way he’s doing it now.”

Sen. Peter Edgecomb, R-Caribou, another committee member, said LePage’s call for Fitzsimmons to resign was “kind of shocking news to hear.”

Edgecomb sat out the last two years after he was term-limited in the House, so he said he’s not familiar with the specific issues that LePage cited.

But he said his impression is that the community colleges are operating well.

“The money we spend in our schools is well spent,” he said. “I had no idea this was about to happen, but I don’t know what (Fitzsimmons) was asked to do and what he did or didn’t do.”

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

[email protected]

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