Trustees for the Maine Community College System say they’re standing behind President John Fitzsimmons, even though Gov. Paul LePage has called for him to resign.

“The board is very strong behind President Fitzsimmons. He’s got very effective leadership abilities and his reputation is impeccable,” said Robert Clark, chairman of the system board and executive director of the Northern Maine Development Commission.

Fitzsimmons issued a statement Tuesday, his first public response to the governor, defending his tenure and addressing the governor’s concerns.

Several trustees said they were surprised that LePage targeted Fitzsimmons, who has been president of the system since 1990. Only the board, whose 13 voting members are appointed by the governor, has the power to remove Fitzsimmons.

“It’s fair to say that the governor’s statements and request for John Fitzsimmons to step down are appalling and grossly misinformed,” said L.L. Bean President and CEO Chris McCormick. “John has done a very good job. This is a very efficiently run and administratively light organization.”

LePage first called on Fitzsimmons to resign on Friday, citing two issues: The system pulled out of a favorite LePage project, the Bridge Year Program, after only a year; and the system wasn’t moving fast enough on setting up a system for transferring credits between community colleges and other colleges, such as the University of Maine System.

In his statement Tuesday, Fitzsimmons said the system has resumed participating in the Bridge Year Program, which allows a high school student to earn college credits before graduation, and had made “very real progress” on the credit transfer issue.

The community college and university systems have been working on the credit transfer issue, Fitzsimmons said in his statement.

“We have made very real progress and expect to have a full and comprehensive transfer agreement in place by May,” he wrote. “Before the community colleges and the university could begin the work of better aligning transfer between the two systems, the university had to first address issues related to transfer of credit among its own institutions. That process required more than a year of work. Once it was complete and the university was ready to focus on external transfer, our staff and theirs began meeting in earnest last summer to build a stronger transfer system.

“The teams have been meeting monthly since then, with hundreds of hours of staff time dedicated to strengthening transfer between the two systems.”

On the issue of the Bridge Year Program, Fitzsimmons said the community college system had been concerned about its costs.

“The loss of revenue our colleges would face by further expanding the program make it difficult to meet our obligations to other students without additional state funding or higher tuition,” the statement said. “Students and their families save $800,000 a year with this jump-start on college, but because the state pays for only half of the tuition and fees for early college courses, the community colleges must account for the rest, $400,000 annually.

“With tight budgets, we could not identify a way clear to expanding these offerings without additional state resources.”

Fitzsimmons, who makes $173,932 annually, did not respond directly to the governor’s call to resign.

“My attention today – as always – is focused on serving the best interests of the 18,000 students, 900 faculty and staff, and businesses across the state who rely on our colleges,” he said in the statement. “Throughout my time with Maine’s community colleges, I have placed an emphasis on open communications, transparency and responsiveness, which has helped our system adapt to Maine’s changing economy and educational needs.”

Fitzsimmons declined a request for an interview.

In his statement, he noted that the governor’s budget has flat-funded the community college system, while increasing funding for the University of Maine System and Maine Maritime Academy.

“Yesterday, the governor suggested that he is prepared to take additional action against the community colleges if I remain as president,” Fitzsimmons said. “Because I report to the (Maine Community College System) board of trustees, I have approached the board leadership to discuss the governor’s concerns, actions and the implications they hold for the system.”

The board’s 13 voting members are appointed by the governor to four-year terms, except for a student member, who has a two-year term. Candidates are reviewed by the state Legislature’s education committee and confirmed by the Legislature.

All of the current members were most recently appointed by LePage.

Clark, who was reappointed to his third term last year, said he first heard about the governor’s concerns at a meeting in November with LePage’s then-education policy adviser, Tom Desjardins, who is now acting education commissioner. The system decided to rejoin the Bridge Year Program after that meeting.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Tuesday that the governor had not changed his position on Fitzsimmons, despite the board’s support.

“Keeping students waiting four years for these initiatives to move forward is not effective leadership,” she wrote in an email.

The governor told reporters in Augusta that he would meet with Fitzsimmons, “but that’s not going to change me. It’s taken me four years to get to this point. I’m not going backwards.”

He acknowledged that the decision was in the board’s hands. The full board’s next meeting is Jan. 28.

“I can’t fire him. I’m just asking the board to pay attention,” LePage said. “Nothing has happened in the last four years. We need aggressive management of the system.”

Clark and other trustees said the system has been active, in particular with initiatives in line with the governor’s emphasis on job training and educating the state’s young people for high-wage jobs in Maine. In recent years, the system has used federal grant money to expand and add programs in information technology, including computer forensics and network security; added programs in precision machining, veterinary technology and health information technology; and added new campuses in Brunswick and Hinckley. It also launched the Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges five years ago, raising $26 million in private funding since then.

“There’s been a lot going on at the community college system and it’s unfortunate that that doesn’t get conveyed to the governor’s office,” said Clark, the board chairman. “I think it’s more of a lack of communication, as is usually the case in these matters.”

The community college system enrolls 18,000 students and has grown 80 percent in the last two decades.

“I think John Fitzsimmons has done a wonderful job,” said trustee Laurence Grondin, a partner at R.J. Grondin & Sons.

Newport Republican Rep. Kenneth Fredette, the House minority leader, was asked during a State House news conference about Fitzsimmons and the community college system. Fredette, who has taught at the Eastern and Southern Maine community colleges, lauded the system, but indicated that it might be time for new leadership. He said the proposal to allow the transfer of education credits between the university system and the community colleges should have been done “20 years ago.”

Regarding Fitzsimmons, Fredette paused before answering.

“I’ll say this: I’ve known President Fitzsimmons for quite some time. I consider him a friend,” Fredette said. “I think he’s done a great job at leading the institution for a quarter of a century. I do think at some point in time, it becomes appropriate to look at what’s the future of the system and whether it’s the right time to leave. It probably is getting near a time where he should look at moving on and look at what someone new could bring to the system.”

McCormick noted that LePage said the board would “feel the wrath” if they didn’t move to replace Fitzsimmons.

“If the governor has an issue with the board of trustees, he should make an attempt to come and talk to the board of trustees,” McCormick said. “To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened.”

Trustee Bill Cassidy, president emeritus of Washington County Community College, said the conflict was unfortunate.

“I think President Fitzsimmons deserves more and better,” Cassidy said. “No one is a greater advocate for this system.”

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