Gov. Paul LePage’s administration hired William Beardsley for a Department of Education job that lasted just hours Friday so he would qualify under state law to serve as the agency’s new interim chief.
The move allowed LePage to comply with the letter, but certainly not the spirit, of the law surrounding temporary department leadership appointments.
State statute allows the governor to make temporary appointments when the top job at a state agency opens up. The appointment, classified in the law as a “temporary deputy commissioner,” must come from within the ranks of the department with a leadership vacancy. “Such temporary deputy commissioner shall be appointed from the personnel of the agency, board, commission or department in which such vacancy occurs,” the statute reads.
Beardsley, however, did not serve as a Department of Education employee until Friday. That day, according to department spokeswoman Anne Gabbianelli, Beardsley began work as the department’s director of special projects. That afternoon, LePage’s office announced Beardsley’s appointment as acting commissioner of the Department of Education. (Beardsley had served on the State Board of Education since 2012 before resigning Thursday, according to Gabbianelli.)
In fact, Beardsley’s appointment is LePage’s second of an acting education commissioner to follow this pattern. Last December, LePage swore in Tom Desjardin as acting education commissioner. As stated in the administration’s announcement at the time, Desjardin’s previous role was as a senior policy adviser in LePage’s office. But Desjardin served a brief, but largely unknown, tenure as deputy commissioner of the Department of Education before he took over as acting commissioner. Desjardin has now returned to the deputy role.
The LePage administration used the same maneuver in the Department of Environmental Protection this summer. When the administration announced Patricia Aho’s resignation from the commissioner post at the end of August, Avery Day, then a policy adviser in LePage’s office, briefly took a position in the agency before becoming its acting commissioner.
The circumstances surrounding Beardsley’s appointment represent only the latest questionable circumstances surrounding LePage’s intentions to fill the post of commissioner of education.
On Dec. 23, 2014, LePage swore in Desjardin as acting commissioner while then-Commissioner Jim Rier was out on medical leave. LePage swore in Desjardin in secret. He didn’t tell the public he was tapping someone new to lead the agency with the largest budget in Maine government until Dec. 29, and only after the Bangor Daily News started asking questions in an effort to confirm the appointment.
Now, it turns out, the administration’s announcement was misleading. “Desjardin will serve as acting commissioner pending a confirmation process with the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee and the State Senate,” the announcement read. But it soon became clear the administration had no intentions of putting Desjardin through that confirmation process.
Now that Beardsley has been tapped to serve as acting commissioner, LePage hasn’t said whether he intends ultimately to nominate Beardsley for the permanent post. The longer the Department of Education has an interim leader in place, the longer the LePage administration has an officer who hasn’t been subject to the legislative oversight required in law for the heads of state agencies.
Beardsley’s appointment complied merely with the letter of Maine law — but again, not the spirit — in one other regard. Maine law surrounding temporary commissioner appointments limits acting commissioners to serving six months. LePage’s office made the announcement about Beardsley’s appointment one day before the six-month period had expired for Desjardin.
The LePage cabinet has at least one department head who has served more than six months in an interim capacity: Brig. Gen. Gerard Bolduc has served as interim leader of the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management since the March ouster of Brig. Gen. James Campbell. That six-month clock ran out in September.
Why does all of this matter?
It’s been more than 11 months since the agency with the largest budget in Maine government has had a duly confirmed, permanent leader overseeing day-to-day operations and policy initiatives. The fact that Beardsley will serve in an acting capacity prolongs the leadership uncertainty as the Department of Education tackles a number of key initiatives, including the deployment of a new, yet-to-be-determined standardized test; the implementation of a proficiency-based diploma at high schools across Maine; and the deployment of new teacher and principal performance evaluations.
And since the appointment of Beardsley (along with Desjardin) tests the limits of the law, it could throw into doubt the legal force of any of his actions as commissioner — from hiring decisions to the issuance of high school equivalency diplomas — nevermind his effectiveness as commissioner.
More broadly, a functional government depends on respect for the law. And this is yet another demonstration of LePage’s lack of respect for it.