AUGUSTA, Maine — With his most ambitious education policy proposals yet on the table, Gov. Paul LePage has covered his flank by defusing ongoing criticism about his refusal to appoint a permanent schools chief for Maine.

Since the governor rescinded his nomination for education commissioner in February 2016 because of Democratic opposition and refused to appoint another, the void in the Department of Education’s top position has been a distraction.

For a year, LePage rebuffed calls for another nominee and shuffled people through the position for temporary stints, all while his original nominee, William Beardsley, ran the department on a de facto basis. That drew continuous fire from legislators, the teachers union and public school advocates.

“Public schools need solid, qualified leadership now more than ever due to the changing demands placed on educators,” Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, said when LePage named Debra Plowman temporary deputy education commissioner in May 2016. “Appointing someone to the post of education commissioner shouldn’t be a shuffle of the deck to see which card lands on top.”

When Beardsley resigned for personal reasons in December 2016, LePage announced that Robert Hasson Jr., a former teacher, principal and 20-year superintendent of School Administrative District 51 in the Cumberland area, would take over. In February, LePage nominated Hasson for the permanent post, and Hasson breezed through Senate confirmation with unanimous, bipartisan support.

The job ahead

Less than two weeks into the job, Hasson is tasked with promoting big and bold LePage initiatives that would change the face of public education in Maine. Among the initiatives in LePage’s pending biennial budget proposal is ending state funding for school administrators in a bid to spur school districts to consolidate, implementing a statewide labor contract for teachers to replace negotiations at the local level, repealing and replacing Maine’s school funding formula and scrapping a voter-approved 3 percent surtax on income above $200,000 that would pour more than $150 million a year into public schools.

“I don’t pretend to have all that figured out,” Hasson said during a recent interview in his office, where Stevie Wonder music played softly in the background. “That’s why this needs to be a process with everybody involved.”

By putting the initiatives into his budget bill, LePage signaled he intends to move quickly and leverage his proposals with the fact that if the overall budget doesn’t pass by the end of June, Maine faces a government shutdown. But Hasson acknowledged that some of the changes are too big to happen all at once.

“My intention with the statewide teacher contract is that there will be a solid beginning to that and that the parties will be actively working on that issue,” he said, adding he is also hoping for legislative approval for more than $10 million over the biennium to fund school consolidation grants.

An insider’s perspective

Republican Sen. Brian Langley of Ellsworth, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Education Committee, said Hasson’s experience will be valuable in negotiations.

“Having someone who understands education policy and has lived it is very, very beneficial,” Langley said. “This governor has put forward some bold initiatives. … Not all of those are meeting with great enthusiasm, but oftentimes it’s the conversation itself that arises that is more important than whatever the initiative is.”

Democratic Rep. Matthea Daughtry of Brunswick, who also serves on the Education Committee, said she doesn’t agree with LePage and Hasson on many issues but that Hasson’s presence will solidify leadership of the department.

“It was so disappointing to see gamesmanship going on with the head of one of the most [important] departments in our state,” she said. “My focus right now is reversing the harmful cuts that are in the governor’s budget. … We’ve already shifted enough onto our local taxpayers, and this budget would overwhelmingly raise our taxes if it were to go through untouched.”

Steven Bailey, president of the Maine School Superintendents Association and superintendent of Damariscotta-area schools, said he knows Hasson is a “knowledgeable, big-picture thinker” who as a former public school insider can speak as a peer to superintendents.

“He does know the inner workings,” said Bailey, whose organization opposes LePage’s proposed shift of administration costs to the local level and supports the increasing state aid to 55 percent of the total cost of public K-12 education. Bailey said most superintendents support those concepts, which makes Hasson’s embracing them noteworthy.

“Some of the positions that have been taken by the governor, as well as have been advocated by the incoming commissioner, I’m a little bit surprised based on his prior history,” Bailey said. “With some of the initiatives that are going on, we’re curious as to how we can talk about things that are important to us and keep that discussion going.”

Conflict points

Hasson said change of the scope LePage is proposing is difficult but that the overall vision is to shift resources to as close to Maine’s students as possible and away from things such as central offices and transportation. He hopes support will come voluntarily.

“The goal is for every one of the 174,000 students in Maine to have the opportunity to have a great teacher with them, at least one, every single day,” Hasson said. “All the efforts that I’m involved with and that the governor is supporting are directed toward that goal.”

Where the Legislature settles when it comes to education remains to be seen. Republicans from the House and Senate, who earlier this year were using softer tones regarding the education surtax approved in Question 2, identified its repeal this week as a “line in the sand” over which the entire $6.8 billion budget proposal depends.

Democrats who have been calling for stronger state funding for education since the 55 percent law was first enacted 13 years ago are similarly unlikely to waver. If that holds true into late June, Hasson will be in the midst of perhaps the biggest challenge of his career.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.