June 10, 2013

2 superintendents deny banning military recruiters from schools

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

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.

click image to enlarge

Rep. Corey Wilson, right, R-Augusta.

Staff file photo by Joe Phelan

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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