AUGUSTA, Maine — Former Husson University President Bill Beardsley won a legislative committee’s party-line approval Wednesday for a post on the State Board of Education, but not without first answering to Democrats’ concerns about how aware he was of allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Husson chaplain the Rev. Robert Carlson.
During a committee hearing on his nomination to the education board, Beardsley called the circumstances surrounding the investigation into allegations of abuse by Carlson a “tragic, tragic situation.” Still, he maintained he had no knowledge that Carlson had done anything illegal during the time they overlapped at Husson.
Members of the Legislature’s Education Committee voted on party lines, 6-4, in favor of Beardsley’s nomination, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats in opposition. His appointment next goes to the Senate, which will take up his and dozens of other appointments by Gov. Paul LePage on Thursday.
“He might be a superb member of the State of Board of Education,” said Rep. Richard Wagner, D-Lewiston. “However, as long as there is any uncertainty whatever with respect to the Carlson case, this is the premier state education board for the state of Maine. At this time, I will not be able to support the nomination.”
Beardsley faced the Education Committee about a month after his name appeared in a Maine State Police report investigating Carlson, the Husson chaplain from 1995 until 2006 who jumped to his death last year after learning that police were investigating allegations that he sexually abused an 11-year-old boy in the 1970s.
The police report cited a witness who said that Husson students had approached Beardsley to make him aware of abuse allegations.
According to the police report, Beardsley discussed the allegations with Carlson and Carlson resigned as Husson’s chaplain. He didn’t report those allegations to police.
Beardsley has disputed the accuracy of the police report, telling the Bangor Daily News last month that he had “no knowledge of anything illegal or unlawful of anything Bob Carlson ever did.” He repeated that claim Wednesday in response to questions from Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland.
“My heart goes out to the people involved in it. My heart goes out to Bob Carlson’s family,” Beardsley said. “In my point of view, I dealt with everything appropriately.”
Alfond asked Beardsley if he thought he was a “mandated reporter” at Husson and, as a result, obligated to report any suspicion of child abuse to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
“A person at Husson in a position of mine has a responsibility to report illegal behavior, anything,” he said. “In the case of the Robert Carlson situation, it didn’t apply, but I’m very aware of that position of an educator.”
While questions about his knowledge of the allegations against Carlson marked the most controversial point of Beardsley’s nomination hearing, legislators spent the bulk of the session asking Beardsley for his thoughts on educational issues, and three people testified in his support.
“I can’t think of anyone who has more qualifications to do what you’re being nominated to do,” said Rep. Peter Johnson, R-Greenville.
Beardsley served 22 years as president of Husson before stepping down to run for governor in 2010. He later was appointed LePage’s conservation commissioner.
Beardsley’s job as conservation commissioner phased out Aug. 30 when the state’s conservation and agriculture departments merged. Agriculture Commissioner Walt Whitcomb became commissioner of the combined Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
Beardsley, who lives in Ellsworth and holds a doctorate in geography and environmental engineering from Johns Hopkins University, also has worked in government, banking, higher education and energy positions in Maine, Vermont and Alaska.
The nine-member State Board of Education acts in an advisory capacity to the education commissioner and makes policy recommendations to the state Legislature. The board also approves school construction projects and sets standards for teacher certification. Three of the board’s members are also members of the state’s Charter School Commission and the board appoints the remaining members.
Beardsley told Education Committee members he’s comfortable taking policy positions that don’t square perfectly with those of LePage, his former boss.
In addition to Beardsley, Education Committee members Wednesday unanimously approved two other State Board of Education nominees: Peter Geiger of Lewiston and Ande Smith of North Yarmouth.
The committee also cleared four appointees to the board of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics magnet school in Limestone: Craig Kesselheim of Southwest Harbor, Sylvia Lowry of Monroe, Christine Voyer of Portland and Dale Gordon of Caribou.