LEWISTON, Maine — Maine’s Republican Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday he would forgo the state’s nomination process in selecting a new education commissioner and instead lead the Department of Education’s dealings with the Legislature.
LePage said acting Commissioner William Beardsley will remain in a leadership position at the Department of Education. The governor suggested Beardsley would serve out his term as acting commissioner, which is limited by statute to six months, then would remain in the department as deputy commissioner.
“I will be the commissioner,” LePage said Thursday morning during an event hosted by a Lewiston-Auburn business group. He later clarified Thursday’s statement, saying he would sign papers and appear at legislative hearings in lieu of a commissioner.
Thursday’s statement comes two days after LePage withdrew Beardsley’s nomination before the Legislature for the position, saying that decision was temporary.
It appears LePage intends to keep Beardsley at the helm of the Department of Education, but without the title of commissioner.
LePage revealed his plan in response to a question from Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster at the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce breakfast Thursday morning.
“As you know, that department has not had dedicated leadership for a while now, and that department needs leadership,” Webster said. “And how do you see that being solved?”
LePage said he believed Beardsley’s nomination was going to be defeated by the seven Democrats on the Legislature’s Education Committee, and he didn’t want to put his nominee through that process.
Beardsley, the former Husson University president and Maine Board of Education member, was due to answer questions from the Education Committee at a Feb. 17 nomination hearing.
“It broke my heart to have to pull that nomination, but he was going to get defeated,” LePage said. “It was going to go down, 7-6. The Democrats said that they were not going to support it. This way here, I can keep him, he keeps working and when his acting commissioner status leaves, he will be the deputy commissioner and I will be the commissioner. That way there I can keep him.”
Some legislative Democrats have said they would question Beardsley about his stance on implementing rules to protect transgender students in Maine public schools.
Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, Senate chairman of the Education Committee, said he had not spoken with LePage about his latest proposal.
“My hope is that we can move past the partisan battles and get to the point where the Education Committee can assess a nominee solely on their merits and ability to run the Department of Education,” Langley said.
“The governor should not joke around about this important position. He needs to respect how important this role is to the teachers and students of this state, as well as to higher education,” said Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, House chairwoman of the committee. “As I said before, the committee stands ready to have an open and transparent hearing with any serious candidate the governor puts forward.”
Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union that represents most of Maine’s teachers, criticized LePage for not taking the role of the commissioner seriously.
“The duty of commissioner of education is a full-time job, the deputy commissioner is also a full-time job. To not appoint a commissioner to the Department of Education is a disservice to Maine students who deserve better,” Kilby-Chesley said in a prepared statement. “The MEA maintains its extreme concern over the lack of seriousness Gov. LePage is taking with the appointment of the commissioner of education.”
Later Thursday, LePage told reporters he did not intend to actually serve as the education commissioner after Beardsley’s term as acting commissioner expired. He said he would address legislators if they want to hear about the administration’s education policies, “and if anything needs the signature of a commissioner, the governor will do it.”
State law also makes it clear a governor is required to act on the behalf of a state department if the department is without a commissioner.
LePage also told reporters he had no intention of reappointing Beardsley during the current session of the Legislature and would await the results of legislative elections in November.
Maine has functioned with acting education commissioners since late 2014, when then-Commissioner James Rier took medical leave.