Gov. Paul LePage plans to act as state education commissioner

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Periscope video by Scott Thistle, State Politics Editor

LEWISTON — Republican Gov. Paul LePage said Thursday he would forgo the state’s official nomination process in selecting a new commissioner for the Department of Education and take on the role himself.

LePage said acting Commissioner William Beardsley will remain in place for the remainder of the governor’s term, which expires in 2018. LePage suggested Beardsley would serve out his term as acting commissioner and then would remain in the department as the deputy commissioner, essentially running the department from that position.

“I will be the commissioner,” LePage said.

The statement comes just days after LePage withdrew Beardsley’s nomination before the Legislature, saying that decision was temporary.

It now appears LePage intends to leave Beardsley in the position de facto. 

LePage told Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster at the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce breakfast Thursday morning that he intended to leave Beardsley in the role of acting commissioner until that term expires and then Beardsley would serve in the role of deputy commissioner. 

“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 Legislature’s Education Committee and he didn’t want to put his nominee through that process.

“You are absolutely right,” LePage said. “It broke my heart to have to pull that nomination, but he was going to get defeated. 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.”

Under state law, an acting commissioner can serve only six months.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s 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 House chairwoman of the committee, Rep. Tori Kornfield, D-Bangor, said if LePage was joking about serving as education commissioner as well as governor, it wasn’t funny.

“The governor should not joke around about this important position,” Kornfield said. “He needs to respect how important this role is to the teachers and students of this state, as well as to higher education.”

She added, “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, the 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.

Kilby-Chesley said that under state law, a DOE commissioner must first serve as a deputy commissioner, and that based on that, LePage was unqualified for the job of commissioner. Kilby-Chesley said LePage knows the laws regarding upper-level appointments because he first appointed Beardsley to a position within the DOE before, a few hours later, appointing him deputy commissioner. Under the law, a person can’t be appointed deputy commissioner unless he or she is already working in the department. 

“This self-appointment continues to show the crisis in credibility at the Department of Education, which now has had six commissioners in just three years, calling into question the ability for anyone to effectively lead Maine schools under this administration,” Kilby-Chesley said in a prepared statement.

“Maine students and schools deserve better than a commissioner who will have no one to answer to but himself, and a commissioner who doesn’t even have a clear handle of the law as written, let alone the ever-changing regulations around education policies,” she said.

Later Thursday, LePage told reporters he did not intend to actually serve as the commissioner of education once Beardsley’s term expires as acting commissioner. 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 makes it clear a governor is required to act on behalf of a state department if the department is without a commissioner.   

LePage also told reporters he had no intention of renominating Beardsley for the commissioner’s position during the current session of the Legislature and would await the results of the next State House elections in November. LePage said political rhetoric had destroyed the careers of previous nominees of his who were rejected by the Legislature.

He characterized the legislative procedure around confirmation hearings as “a s**t show.”

“So, if they would rather have me in front of the Education Committee talking about education issues, I would be more than happy to,” LePage said. “And that’s what’s going to happen.”

“When they need somebody from education, guess who is going to be appearing?” LePage asked as he tugged on his suit jacket lapels. 

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