September 23, 2020

For reflective King, education and economic goals still works in progress

Editors Note: Next week, Gov. Angus King starts his last year in office. Reporter Mal Leary interviewed King at length last week on his goals over the last seven years and what the governor sees as his unfinished agenda. In the first of two parts, King talks about his efforts to improve Maine’s economy and his belief that education is key to economic development.

AUGUSTA – Eight years ago Angus King was busy trying to finish what became a key part of his first successful campaign for governor, a book titled “Making a Difference.” When asked if he has been able to live up to that title, King just smiled.

“I knew you would ask me that,” he said. “I don’t think it was ever possible to accomplish everything, but I think we are in better shape than we were eight years ago.”

Throughout King’s book there is a recurring theme. Maine needs to change in order to keep and attract good jobs. He called for changes in tax and spending policies, and he said in many ways that for Maine to compete economically, the state needed to improve its infrastructure.

He defined infrastructure differently from many, saying that investing in the traditional items such as highways and bridges was not enough. He said there needed to be investment in people, through education.

“There is no greater commitment we can make to the future of Maine than a first-quality educational system,” King wrote. “This is not an opinion, it is a necessity.”

King said some of the proposals he made have been adopted. The state has increased funding for pre-school programs and adopted learning standards. Overall, funding for both elementary and secondary education has increased significantly, as has state support of higher education.

But, King said, some of his key goals have not been fulfilled, nor is it likely they will be during his final year in office. For example, King called for greater efficiency in the biggest single area of spending by state and local governments – local schools. He said the results have been disappointing.

“I underestimated the resistance,” he said. “To me it was and is obvious that we need to consolidate more schools and it makes so much sense I thought people would just say ‘of course you are right.”‘

King said there have been some successes, with schools and school districts cooperating in some areas to achieve savings. For example, the state is purchasing all school buses and some school districts are cooperating to purchase other supplies and share teachers in specialty areas.

“But it is far short of what I hoped,” he said. “There is more going on, but not as much as we could be doing.”

King said the tradition of each small town going its own way is expensive for taxpayers. He said that on a recent visit to Washington County he could see some “raised eyebrows” when he warned his audience that the area could not afford to continue operating eight different high schools for only 1,600 students and should consolidate some facilities.

“That’s no favor to the kids or the taxpayer,” he said. “I don’t think you can provide an adequate curriculum in a school with 150 to 200 kids, not in this day and age.”

King said he has not given up on his goals of greater efficiency through cooperation and collaboration among local schools, but he acknowledged that with the state’s fiscal picture, any progress is doubtful. And his frustration over the issue was evident during the interview.

“The opposition to a more rational way of operating our schools has been intense, and it is costing us, costing all of us in more than just dollars,” he said.

King said he is convinced the only way to achieve greater cooperative efforts is through incentives. He said he would like to set aside some portion of the annual increase in school aid to be used as grants to those school districts that save money through greater cooperation with other districts.

“We are putting over $300 million more a year, each year, into school funding than when I took office,” he said. “In retrospect, perhaps some of that should have gone into incentives.”

In his book, King also called for increased cooperation by municipalities. He said local governments in Maine, for the most part, carefully scrutinize budgets and are frugal. But like with school districts, they could do better.

“Where I think the inefficiencies lie are in the unrealized efficiencies that could be obtained by closer collaboration,” he said.

He said some cities and towns do cooperate in such areas as fire and police departments and in emergency dispatch services. But he would like to figure out a way to provide incentives for even broader efforts in everything from road maintenance to equipment purchases.

“If we could save just 10 percent from such efforts,” he said, “and I think that is reasonable, we are talking about saving taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year.”

King said higher-education institutions in Maine also could do “far more” to cooperate and make a college degree more affordable. He acknowledged he is “disappointed” with the University of Maine System and its role in improving Maine’s economy.

“For this state to compete effectively in this global economy, its university has to be very engaged and active in the economic life of the state,” King said. “The university could ratchet up its involvement and engagement.”

King said he considers the importance of the university, along with the technical college system and Maine Maritime Academy, so important he has asked State Planning Office Director Evan Richert to take on the issue of improving cooperation as a “special project” during his last year in office.

“There have been some improvements, don’t get me wrong,” King said. “But we need far greater cooperation and collaboration among all the campuses and institutions.”

As positive developments during his tenure, King pointed to the creation of another technical college in York County as well as university learning centers in Auburn and Belfast. But, he said, the role and nature of the campuses need to change.

“We can’t have seven mini-Oronos,” he said, referring to the largest of the seven UMS campuses. “We can’t afford it, and we don’t need it.”

More distance learning along with full use of the Internet for classes and more learning at work using technology are part of his goals. He does not advocate closing any of the campuses, but said their role needs to change. He said there could be more professors and fewer administrators by reorganizing the system.

“We are delivering too much education today as we did in Shakespeare’s time, the sage on the stage,” he said. “We need to improve productivity so that every campus does not repeat every program that every other campus has. We can’t afford it. It does not make sense.”

While the community college initiative is a step toward getting more adults to go to college, he said it must be expanded or the state will not have the number of college graduates it needs to compete.

He said the current instructional TV system is outdated, and should be replaced by the new Internet-based system being used in high schools. He said that would allow a greater “sharing” of professors and instructors among locations.

“When this is published, the letters will come in and people will say the governor does not understand the value of having the professor in front of the class,” King said. “But that’s not true. Of course I do, but we can’t afford that at every campus for every course.”

He said Maine is trying to catch up with the rest of the country as the fundamental nature of the state’s economy changes. He said instead of an economy based on using natural resources, Maine is moving to an economy based on the knowledge of its workers.

“Unfortunately, this is an area my successors will have to take on,” King said. “I have just about run out of time on my watch.”

Monday: King admits he was wrong in one of his campaign claims in 1994, and he discusses other areas where he sees both success and work left undone during his first seven years in office.

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