Maine law requires the state to have a commissioner of the Department of Education. However, the department’s top job has not officially been filled for nearly two years. Frustrated by a lack of clarity and guidance on issues ranging from student testing to school funding, superintendents wrote to Gov. Paul LePage to encourage him to appoint a permanent education commissioner.
The governor’s response: I have who I want running the department, and he’ll stay there until I leave office. The problem is that his choice, Bill Beardsley, isn’t the commissioner because LePage refuses to follow the requirements outlined in state law. More troubling, last week LePage stepped in to deny a lawmaker’s request for information from the department.
“The commissioner is the chief executive officer of the department,” the law says. The commissioner’s job is “providing educational public leadership for the State.” Yet, Maine has been without an education commissioner since November 2014.
The law further says, “The commissioner shall be appointed by the Governor, subject to review by the joint standing committee of the Legislature having jurisdiction over education and to confirmation by the Legislature.”
LePage refuses to officially nominate Beardsley to the commissioner’s job because Democrats have said they would oppose his appointment. The problem, however, started well before Beardsley.
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. He never nominated Desjardin for the permanent job, so he was never subject to legislative confirmation.
LePage tapped Beardsley, the former president of Husson University, as acting commissioner after Desjardin’s term as acting commissioner expired in October. LePage later nominated Beardsley to serve as commissioner but withdrew the nomination in February, concerned that opposition from Democrats would derail it.
In April, LePage approved a financial order that created a temporary Department of Education position, that of “Public Service Executive III,” so Beardsley could remain in charge of day-to-day operations — again, without legislative confirmation — until April 17, 2018.
In May, the attorney general’s office refused to sign off on rules regarding student immunization and special education because no one at the department, including Beardsley, had the authority to sign them. The office also warned the LePage administration that other commissioner duties, such as signing off on student transfers between school districts and revoking teacher certifications, could not be fulfilled by Beardsley.
To fix this problem — and to continue to circumvent the law — LePage appointed Debra Plowman, a former lawmaker with no official education experience before she joined the department as a legislative liaison, as the department’s temporary deputy commissioner. Her first official act was to appoint Beardsley as deputy commissioner. His appointment, by law, can last only six months.
“The uncertainty around [the commissioner’s] position has diminished its stature and also created instability among DOE staff,” Susan Pratt and Steven Bailey, the president and president-elect of the Maine School Superintendents Association, wrote in a June 30 letter to LePage.
“School administrators and their boards need a well-run DOE to effectively run their schools and provide the best education possible for our students,” they added.
In response, LePage wrote simply that Beardsley was doing a good job and he intended to keep him in charge of the department. If the next Legislature “is different,” LePage wrote, he will officially nominate Beardsley to be commissioner.
The problem with this stubborn thinking is that it does nothing to relieve the uncertainty that school officials and the attorney general have identified as harming the day-to-day functioning of the Department of Education, which in turn punishes the state’s schools and students.
It is past time for LePage to end the revolving door at the Department of Education and to nominate a commissioner.