Last week, Gov. Paul LePage appointed yet another acting education commissioner. The revolving door is necessary because an acting commissioner appointment can last only six months. Meanwhile, the governor’s real choice to run the department, former Husson University President Bill Beardsley, remains the de facto commissioner, even though he has not been appointed to that job.
The last time an education commissioner confirmed by the Senate was running the Maine Department of Education, overseeing the largest pot of state taxpayer dollars in Maine government, was November 2014.
In the two years since, LePage has kept someone of his choosing in charge without subjecting him to the legislative confirmation process demanded 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.
Of course, Gov. Paul LePage could end this charade by nominating Beardsley for the education commissioner post and allowing the Legislature to do its job of vetting him for the job. LePage did nominate Beardsley in October 2015 but withdrew the nomination in February, when it was clear there would be opposition to it.
In a July letter to the Maine School Superintendents Association, LePage said he would consider nominating Beardsley again “if the 128th Legislature will be different.” LePage should follow through on this pledge in January and let the new and different Legislature do its job.
Likewise, the new legislative leaders need to demand that LePage follow the law and nominate a permanent education commissioner.
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.
Maine law requires that the state have a commissioner of education, appointed by the governor. “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.”
The situation was so absurd earlier this year that two new rules regarding special education and student vaccinations were shelved because no one at the Department of Education was authorized to sign off on them, the Office of the Attorney General concluded. Other routine work at the department also was in jeopardy, the AG’s office warned the governor’s office in emails earlier this year.
In April, LePage appointed Beardsley as a “Public Service Executive III,” a position, as the AG’s Office pointed out, that did not have the authority to sign off on paperwork and otherwise act as the head of the Department of Education.
LePage remedied the situation, while still ignoring the law, by appointing a temporary deputy commissioner, who immediately appointed Beardsley as deputy commissioner. That temporary deputy commissioner, Debra Plowman, had to step down this month because her six-month appointment was up. She has been replaced by Robert Hasson, the department’s director of certification. While his appointment was generally applauded by educators and lawmakers, they continue to have concerns about the lack of permanent leadership at the education department.
“It’s been my position that there needs to be a confirmed commissioner at the helm,” Republican Sen. Brian Langley, chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, told the Portland Press Herald. “Stability in the department is really critical for the department to function effectively.”
Stability and accountability should be a hallmark of government. LePage can return the Department of Education to these standards by again nominating a permanent education commissioner.