The last time an education commissioner confirmed by the Maine Senate was running the Maine Department of Education, overseeing the largest pot of state money in Maine government, was November 2014.
In the 17 months since, Gov. Paul LePage has used seemingly every maneuver imaginable to keep someone of his choosing in charge without subjecting him to the legislative confirmation process required by the Maine Constitution. That process is designed to allow lawmakers and the public to vet the person charged with one of the most important jobs in Maine and to keep the executive branch’s power in check.
It’s an insult to teachers and administrators across the state, to lawmakers and to all Maine residents that the governor takes such pains to escape public accountability for his choice to lead an agency that oversees more than $1 billion in spending each year.
Bill Beardsley has a resume that makes him a viable nominee to lead the Department of Education. But lawmakers have legitimate questions to ask him as part of the vetting process. And instead of allowing lawmakers to ask them and allowing Beardsley to respond in public, LePage has managed to keep Beardsley effectively in charge while laying siege to the principles of open government and distribution of powers enshrined in Maine’s Constitution.
The Maine Constitution was one of the first to devote a separate article to the separation of powers, Portland lawyer Marshall Tinkle writes in his book “The Maine State Constitution: A Reference Guide.” By the time Article III became part of the constitution, Tinkle writes, “Mainers had come to believe that the separation of powers was ‘natural.’”
It’s the only article of Maine’s Constitution that has never been amended. But LePage has repeatedly violated its spirit.
After the governor’s last confirmed commissioner, Jim Rier, left on medical leave in November 2014, the governor swore in his policy adviser, Tom Desjardin, as acting commissioner without even publicly announcing his action until the BDN started asking questions. He never nominated Desjardin for the permanent job, so he was never subject to legislative confirmation.
LePage tapped Beardsley after Desjardin’s term as acting commissioner expired. But since state law requires that an acting commissioner come from within the ranks of the department he is to lead, Beardsley took a job in the Department of Education for one day before becoming acting commissioner on the next day of business.
LePage later nominated Beardsley as Rier’s permanent replacement but withdrew the nomination in February — days before a hearing scheduled before the Legislature’s Education Committee — concerned that opposition from Democrats would derail it.
Now LePage has found another way around public accountability. He has approved a financial order that creates a temporary Department of Education position, that of “Public Service Executive III,” so Beardsley can remain in charge of day-to-day operations — again, without legislative confirmation — until April 17, 2018.
The financial order authorizing the position carries the signature of Beardsley, as acting commissioner, and a stamp indicating LePage’s approval. It’s one branch of government approving its own actions, hardly in line with the distribution of powers at the heart of Maine’s Constitution.
Every educator in the state must abide by rules determined at the local, state and federal levels. Those educators and their schools are in the process of implementing major reforms: proficiency-based diplomas, for example, and new evaluation systems to ensure teachers’ effectiveness. The Department of Education is charged with ensuring school districts follow through.
But the LePage administration hasn’t followed the rules to ensure the department has proper leadership, so why should such a state agency have legitimacy in educators’ minds to enforce major new requirements?
Neither Beardsley nor LePage is above the Constitution or the law. Beardsley should be subject to legislative confirmation. If he can’t survive it, he shouldn’t lead the Department of Education.