Maine education commissioner won’t return; LePage chooses senior adviser as replacement

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AUGUSTA — Gov. Paul LePage has chosen one of his senior policy advisers, Tom Desjardin, to be Maine’s next commissioner of education.

Desjardin, a historian by education and trade, was sworn in as acting commissioner on Dec. 23, according to an internal email sent that day to all Department of Education employees. His nomination will be submitted to the Legislature when it reconvenes next month.

The email, sent by Department of Education communications director Samantha Warren, said Desjardin will continue to serve concurrently as one of the Republican governor’s senior policy advisers until a replacement adviser is found.

The internal memo is the first signal that Education Commissioner Jim Rier, a longtime Department of Education administrator, will not return to the commissioner’s office. Rier went on indefinite medical leave in November, just over a year after he took the job. At that time the department said he was expected to return as commissioner.

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“Outgoing Commissioner Rier is finally at home where he is fully focused on continuing his recovery and remains appreciative of our cards and well wishes,” Warren wrote in the email. “While he does remain on medical leave, he continues to keep in close communication with (Desjardin) and the leadership team and may return to the department as deputy commissioner in the coming months, if he is able.”

Warren said in an interview Monday that Rier has continued to be involved in the discussion as LePage and his team assemble their biennial budget proposal.

Rachelle Tome, who was appointed acting commissioner when Rier went on leave, apparently has been placed back into her former role as chief academic officer, according to her public LinkedIn profile.

Desjardin was brought onto LePage’s team in 2013 to serve as a senior policy adviser on education, as well as issues related to the Departments of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Environmental Protection and Marine Resources.

A graduate of Edward Little High School in Auburn, Desjardin holds a doctorate in U.S. history from the University of Maine and has published several books.

He was the Department of Agriculture Conservation and Forestry’s resident historian for more than a decade before joining the governor’s team two years ago. 

Desjardin’s appointment on Dec. 23 was not disclosed to the public until Monday, nearly a week after he was sworn in. After confirming the appointment to the BDN, LePage’s office posted a news release announcing the appointment.

The release made no mention of any experience in education administration or with the department, and Desjardin’s LinkedIn profile includes only his jobs as the governor’s adviser and as a historian.

When asked why LePage chose Desjardin for the post, spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said the governor’s office would offer no immediate comment, and efforts to interview Desjardin on Monday were unsuccessful. But some stakeholders, including the union that represents most Maine public school teachers, already are asking questions about the nominee’s qualifications.

“While it is not clear now what qualifications Mr. Desjardin has in the field of education, the MEA is eager to work together to ensure every student is given a chance to receive the best possible public school education,” Maine Education Association president Lois Kilby-Chesley said in a written statement.

While LePage can name an acting education commissioner, a temporary job, the Senate will make the final decision about Desjardin’s confirmation as the state’s education chief. The Senate will take up the question after the Legislature’s Education Committee holds a public hearing on Desjardin’s nomination and makes a recommendation.

News of Desjardin’s swearing-in, and of LePage’s intention for him to succeed Rier, was not a complete surprise for Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, who said he knew LePage would be naming Desjardin for the post. Thibodeau said he was familiar with Desjardin, and described him as “a very intelligent and thoughtful guy.”

Thibodeau said he is not concerned about Desjardin’s lack of experience in education administration. Desjardin “will excel at anything that he puts his hand to,” Thibodeau said.

Senate Democratic Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said he was blindsided by the nomination. He said he would remain open to hearing Desjardin’s vision for state education, but had many questions.

“Thankfully, he will go through the confirmation process, starting in the (Education and Cultural Affairs) committee and heading to the Senate after the committee has vetted the nominee thoroughly,” Alfond said.

While Republicans control the Senate, their numbers are not large enough to overcome Democratic opposition should Desjardin fail to win an endorsement from the majority of the Education Committee. If the Education Committee, with its 7-6 Democratic majority, opposes his confirmation, Republican senators will need to win over at least one Democratic colleague to appoint Desjardin.

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