WMUR: NH education chief says new proposal would give him ‘fidelity to law,’ management flexibility

WMUR reported on the recent draft amendment proposed by Senator Reagan to expand the authority of the NH Commissioner of Ed:

New Hampshire Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut said Friday he asked for new legislation to give him broader authority to manage his department in order to have flexibility and “fidelity to the underlying laws” that govern how the agency operates.

Legislation introduced earlier this week by state Senate Education Committee Chairman John Reagan, R-Deerfield, would concentrate management control with the recently appointed commissioner.

It has prompted concern in some quarters that it gives Edelblut too much power. Skeptics also say that legislation of such magnitude should not have been introduced quietly as an amendment to an unrelated bill to study the state’s formula for funding education.

A public education advocacy group, a Democratic state senator and a member of the state board of education say the plan should have a public hearing, but there are currently no plans to do so. Reagan could not be reached for comment for this report.

The formal legislative staff analysis of the amendment introduced by Reagan says it “consolidates the duties of the divisions of the Department of Education into the office of the commissioner and authorizes the commissioner to transfer appropriations or transfer or reassign personnel as the commissioner deems necessary.”

View the amendment here.

Edelblut, a Republican former business executive who unsuccessfully ran for governor last year on a conservative platform, said during his confirmation hearing before the Executive Council in February that if confirmed, he would act as “the implementation guy” and would not attempt to make wholesale changes in department policy.

In an interview Friday, Edelblut told WMUR that he asked for the changes to help him be that implementer, not to effect broad policy changes. He said the amendment is needed “so that I have fidelity to the underlying law, and so that we have the ability to organize the department to more effectively provide constituent services.”

“When I got on board, I saw that the statutes are detailed in enumerating all the responsibilities of the department, but they also lay out specifically how the different responsibilities are dealt out,” he said. “I learned that commissioners before me moved things around internally so the department would function better, but never made those changes in the statute. That is what we’re trying to do.”

The amendment gives the commissioner authority to administer the standards for approving elementary and secondary schools, to manage the delivery of special education services and set rates for private providers of those services. Those duties are currently assigned by law to specific divisions of the department.

The department’s four divisions – education improvement, program support, career technology and adult learning, and higher education – currently have specific directors. Their duties are laid out in statute.

The amendment repeals those divisions but then requires the creation of four new divisions, which would be under the direction of the commissioner.

The current Higher Education Commission would remain intact, but the commissioner, rather than a division director, would be responsible for providing support for administering the state’s higher education fund.

The current division directors have a measure of autonomy under specific statutes. Those posts would be done away with and recreated with responsibilities “as assigned by the commissioner.”

The amendment gives the commissioner new authority to transfer or reassign personnel within the department, and to delegate authority to “administer and operate any program or service of the department” to any employee, division or office of the department.

The commissioner is authorized under the amendment to transfer funds within the department as he “deems necessary and appropriate” to deal with budget deficits, changes in federal laws and regulations, “and otherwise as necessary for the efficient management of the department.” Any transfer of $75,000 or more, however, would require prior approval of the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee and the Governor and Executive Council.

Change in role of deputy

Reagan’s amendment repeals the current responsibilities of the department’s deputy commissioner and transfers them directly to the commissioner. The deputy’s role would be to “perform such duties as may be assigned by the commissioner, including the possibility of directing any division of the department.” The deputy would also act for the commissioner when directed by the commissioner to do so and would assume the commissioner’s duties when the commissioner is unable to perform them.

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.

Edelblut said the amendment appears more daunting than it actually is because it puts into writing what previous commissioners have done internally.

For example, he said, a previous commissioner moved the administration of nutritional food programs from the Division of Program Support to the Division of Educational Improvement, “and it made sense because all of the federal grant programs were then in the same place. But the statutes didn’t reflect that.”

“If I’m going to be running the department, I have to have fidelity to the underlying law, and my predecessors have seen the need to move things around,” Edelblut said. “We also have to have flexibility, and we tried to come up with something to have us do that.”

“But because it has caused so much of a stir, I’m now working on other ways that may be more palatable to people,” Edelblut said. “Whatever makes it work for them. I’m just trying to do the job.”

Edelblut also said that he wants to rename the divisions to move away from what he called “education vernacular” and reflect a consumer-oriented approach, suggesting names such as “educator support” or “student support.”

He said he first attempted to have the House Finance Committee include the plan in the committee trailer bill to the House budget, but the committee was not receptive. He said he then asked Reagan to introduce it in the Senate.

The commissioner said he is open to a public hearing on the bill if the senators want one, and is also willing to meet with the senators to discuss it in public session.

Concern voiced

Most, though not all, of the reaction to the plan voiced Friday was directed mostly at the way that it was introduced — without notice or a hearing as a “non-germane” amendment to an existing bill – rather than at the content of the proposal itself.

Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said that on Tuesday, he asked for a public hearing and a work session to have committee members discuss the proposal with Edelblut. He said Reagan denied the request, but said that Reagan agreed to put off a committee vote on the amendment until next Tuesday, April 18.

“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.

Reaching Higher NH, a two-year-old nonpartisan nonprofit organization that describes its mission as fostering support for high standards in public schools, concluded a lengthy analysis of the plan on its website by saying, “The amendment would grant the Commissioner of Education expansive authority that exceeds the discretion provided to most other state departments.”

In a statement to WMUR on Friday, the group said: “This is a highly-technical amendment that could have a significant impact on our state. It would reorganize a department that provides critical services to families and students across New Hampshire. It deserves much greater scrutiny and public engagement.”

Former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a Republican, is a member of the Reaching Higher NH board of directors, along with a group of other well-known community leaders.

Rath, clarifying that he was not speaking for the board, said, “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.”

State Board of Education member William Duncan said Edelblut did not discuss the proposal with the board.

“The position of the commissioner needs some additional authority, but this bill provides him with unlimited authority, and it is way over the top in the authority it seeks,” Duncan said.

He also questioned what he called the amendment’s “circuitous path, trying to pass it with no hearing.”

Duncan said a discussion of the plan with Edelblut is now on the agenda for the board’s meeting on May 11.

“It’s an idea that ought to get full discussion,” he said. “The best alternative is a study committee. If the goal is to bring the statutes into closer conformance with the way the department actually operates, then that’s a real discussion that ought to occur.”

Read the full article here.