News Review: Amendment to Reorganize NH Dept. of Ed

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Senator John Reagan proposed an amendment on April 11th in the Senate Education Committee, that would substantially increase the authority and power of the Office of the Commissioner of Education. The amendment was an addition to HB 356, an unrelated bill (which creates a legislative study committee on the education funding formula) that has already passed the House and had its public hearing in the Senate. The Senate Education Committee will vote on the amendment and bill on Tuesday, April 18. Read Reaching Higher NH’s analysis of the amendment here. Here is a recap of related news coverage.

“A long overdue restructuring of the department”

“The amendment transfers to the commissioner the existing responsibilities of the deputy commissioner and gives the commissioner authority over all programs, funds and personnel,” reported the Union Leader. Commissioner Edelblut recognized the increased authority he’d have:

He characterized the foundation of the proposal this way: “We move all the responsibilities to me, and I push them out to the organization in the best way to get them done.”

That kind of authority is necessary to implement a long overdue restructuring of the department, he said.

It would also shift the power within the department and make the Deputy Commissioner report to the Commissioner. Right now, the Deputy Commissioner provides overall leadership of the Department and has four offices: human resources, business management (the budget), public relations, and legislative services:

The commissioner, rather than the deputy commissioner, would be responsible for implementing the department’s “organizational goals,” “managing the work of the department” and “directing division directors.”

The commissioner would also take over personnel management, accounting and budget control responsibilities, fiscal management of all federal and other grants, and approving short- and long-term plans of the divisions.

The proposed draft amendment 1236s would:

  • eliminate the four existing divisions (details below) at the Department and replace them with four new divisions (responsibilities TBD) under the direction of the Commissioner;
  • transfer the existing responsibilities of the Deputy Commissioner to the Commissioner; and,
  • place authority over essentially all programs, funds, and personnel solely within the Office of the Commissioner.

The amendment would grant the Commissioner of Education expansive authority that exceeds the discretion provided to most other state departments. While the authorities granted to the Commissioner of Education by the amendment are in some ways similar to the authorities currently granted to the Commissioner of Health and Human Services, the two Departments play notably different roles in the state. The Department of Education, consistent with New Hampshire’s local control ethos, has historically served primarily as the provider of state education funding and as the intermediary between local school districts and the federal Department of Education. In these roles, the Department provides much needed expertise and serves as an important guardian of students’ rights to a public education.

“A modest housekeeping issue”

Senator John Reagan told NHPR that he proposed the bill at the request of Commissioner Frank Edelblut:

“Well apparently he’s got – I don’t know, I don’t work there – apparently he has resistance within the department and he wants to be able to manage the department, that’s his job,” said Reagan.

“It’s a new commissioner and he’s a professional manager and this is what he wants to do,” said Reagan, a Deerfield Republican.

“I think there are silos over there, and people would not work outside of their silos,” he added.

Commissioner Edelblut responded, saying he is not meeting any resistance by the Department. He says it’s merely an attempt to have statute match what’s already happening in the Department.

“I think that my previous commissioners made some of these changes in order to allow the Department of Education to be more responsive to its customers,” said Edelblut, “but those changes were not reflected in the law, and I feel an obligation to have fidelity to the law.”

The Commissioner spoke with the Union Leader about what some of these changes might look like:

The problem, according to Edelblut, is that the reality at the Department of Education does not coincide with the law. Many of those responsibilities have been moved around over the years by previous commissioners.

He used the example of administering nutrition programs, which by statue resides with the Division of Program Support, but today is administered by the Division of Educational Improvement.

“Someone before me moved it around,” he said, citing several other examples. “We are not consistent with the underlying statute at the present time.”

“We are only asking the Legislature, can you give us the flexibility to disperse our legislatively mandated responsibilities among the four divisions in order to effectively service our constituents, and honestly, that’s what the commissioners before me did. They just never asked for permission.”

Concerns over the process

The amendment was introduced as a part of HB 356, an unrelated bill that already passed the House and had a hearing in the Senate. Senator Reagan denied Senator David Watters‘ request to hold a public hearing and work session for the amendment. That means that the public will not have the chance to weigh in on the bill. The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill on Tuesday, April 18.

Senator David Watters is on the Senate Education Committee and has reservations about the way the amendment was proposed:

“Obviously, there is a whole lot of concern about this,” Watters said. “On short notice, it seems to be a wholesale reconstruction of the role of the commissioner and an elimination of long-standing areas of responsibility of others. I’m just cautious about big changes at the Department of Education without a lot of conversation and appropriate notice.”

“I will say that the commissioner is hired as a commissioner to manage his department and bring ideas to the table,” Watters said. “And I get that, and I talked to the commissioner for a long time about it, and he understands the concerns.”

Watters said he said he will bring some of his own proposals to the Tuesday meeting. They are expected to provide the commissioner with a measure of flexibility but also with some oversight.

“I like to avoid political, ideological battles because there are a lot of good things going on in public education across the state that we may lose sight of,” the senator said.

Former New Hampshire Attorney General and Reaching Higher NH board co-chair Tom Rath told WMUR:

“It appears to me, as someone who has been in state government, that this is a pretty big change to effect in such a precipitous manner. Usually, with kinds of things that are structured statutorily, to undo it you would have to have more process.”

“Absent some compelling crisis, I’d think the Legislature would want to go slow and understand more exactly what they are doing.”

Rath said he was not surprised that Edelblut “wants some kind of structure that he may feel is more efficient, but this is not the typical process that you go through. It feels kind of rushed.”

Still others have concerns about the amendment itself. Executive Councilor Andru Volinksy said that it might change the relationship between the Department of Education and the State Board of Education:

“It really does amount to an unprecedented, naked power grab by the commissioner,” said Andru Volinksy, a Democratic Executive Councilor. “Given his (confirmation hearing) testimony about being merely an implementer and not a maker of policy, this is a shocking change.”

Volinksy added he worried the change could change the relationship between the State Board of Education – with whom Edelblut has had an increasingly contentious relationship – and the Commissioner’s office, which would by law have purview over basically all department functions.

“The board (would lose) its ability to oversee the commissioner and the department because the board will be completely dependent on the commissioner for information,” he said.

State Board of Education member Bill Duncan said that the proposed changes are far-reaching for any commissioner, let alone one who is new to state government:

“That’s a wide swath for a brand new commissioner, no matter what his experience and qualifications. But when we’re talking about a commissioner who’s new to public education and new to state government, this is a very big deal,” says Duncan, appointed by Gov. Maggie Hassan in 2014.

“That is a radical change,” said Duncan, who described the legal definitions of the divisions and the qualifications required of division directors as safeguards designed to keep the Department of Education from being politicized.

“There is some safety in all of this so that when you change a commissioner you’re not changing the whole world. You’re just changing one person, and there is a limited amount of damage a person can do in four years because the machine keeps working,” Duncan said.

Shaking up things at the Department of Education

From the Union Leader:

Along with proposing the amendment, Commissioner Edelblut has made several more proposals to the State Board of Education:

At the state Board of Education meeting on April 6, Edelblut proposed a complete rewrite of the state’s standards for science education – standards that the board had approved only a year earlier. The seven-member board denied that proposal and voted unanimously not to review science standards again until 2022.

Read Reaching Higher’s comprehensive analysis of the amendment to HB 356 here.