Union Leader: Edelblut power play in DOE reorganizing?

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The Union Leader featured an article on the amendment to HB 356, which would restructure the Department of Education:

It hasn’t taken Frank Edelblut much time to shake things up at the Department of Education.

Gov. Chris Sununu’s controversial pick as Education commissioner took office in mid-February to complete the term of his predecessor and was confirmed by the Republican majority on the Executive Council for his own four-year term on March 22.

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.

Now Edelblut is proposing a reorganization of the department that he is calling housekeeping but Board of Education member Bill Duncan is calling “a radical change in the management of the department.”

The plan was introduced by state Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, on Tuesday as an amendment to an unrelated education bill that has already passed the House, HB 356.

It would eliminate the four existing divisions in the department and replace them with four new divisions, with names and responsibilities to be determined, under the direction of the commissioner.

The amendment transfers to the commissioner the existing responsibilities of the deputy commissioner and gives the commissioner authority over all programs, funds and personnel.

“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.

Not so, according to Edelblut, who said the changes he’s proposing are not that radical. 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.

The idea of having four divisions will remain, according to Edelblut, he just needs the legislative authority to realign the responsibilities of each department, including the role of deputy commissioner.

Existing legislation defines the four divisions – Educational Improvements, Program Support, Career Technology and Adult Learning/Higher Education – and the duties of each.

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.”

Accepting Edelblut’s proposed changes requires a leap of faith, according to critics. If the Legislature essentially wipes the organizational slate clean for the commissioner, and gives him the authority to rebuild as he sees fit, there’s no telling the outcome.

The changes being proposed would also eliminate statutory requirements for the qualifications of the four division heads, giving the commissioner unrestricted authority to hire as he sees fit, subject to confirmation by the Executive Council.

“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.

According to Reagan, who expects his amendment will come up at the Senate Education Committee meeting on Tuesday, the machine could use some improvement and Edelblut needs to have the tools.

Read the full article here.