Senate panel backs compromise on Education Department restructure

  • Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut testifies before the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday about a restructuring proposal for the department. Lola Duffort / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Senate Education Committee backed a plan Tuesday to allow the state’s education commissioner the latitude to reassign personnel within the Department of Education while a study committee mulls a larger restructuring effort.

The proposal was crafted as a compromise by Democratic state Sen. David Watters after another plan, pitched by Republican state Sen. John Reagan, sparked considerable backlash. Both were being put forward as amendments to an unrelated education bill, House Bill 356.

Reagan’s plan, put forward at Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut’s request, would have collapsed all of the department’s functions into the commissioner’s office. Edelblut had said he’d asked for the legislative change because the department’s structure right now didn’t comply with state law, and that he might want to do some restructuring of his own in the future.

Critics argued that it would have given Edelblut far too much authority, and was too big a change to push through so quickly.

Watters’s proposal allows Edelblut to move people around the department within its existing structure after consulting with the State Board of Education. It also creates a study committee to consider whether or not, and how, to potentially restructure the department.

“It is certainly a solution that will allow me to solve my pending problems that I am dealing with at the department,” Edelblut told the committee when Watters asked him if his proposal could meet his needs.

But Reagan pushed back, saying that, as it stood, the division heads within the department had to be approved by the governor and council. That’s unusual in state government, Reagan said, and division directors shouldn’t answer to anybody but the commissioner.

“Part of this effort is to remove those directors and place those divisions – same people – under your authority. And that’s what I found most able to support in the amendment – is that the manager’s managers have to report to the manager – not to some other group,” he said.

And Edelblut did appear to favor Reagan’s plan.

“It is unusual that we have, you know, fixed in statute that there are four divisions,” he told the committee. “As a person who has experience with organization, and organizational design, it seems unusual to create such a rigid and fixed (system).”

State Sen. Ruth Ward, a Stoddard Republican, ultimately joined the Democrats on the committee to vote down Reagan’s amendment 3-2 and instead recommend Watters’s proposal.

“Once again the unions just were better organized than the forces of good management,” Reagan told reporters after the meeting ended. “They’re going to have this committee meet, and they’re going to kick these ideas around. And the vote will be the same. I don’t think you’re going to see any changes made.”

A majority of speakers testifying about the restructuring plans Tuesday spoke against Reagan’s original proposal, and many said parts of Watters’s amendment didn’t go far enough either.

The restructuring proposal had touched off outcry, particularly among Edelblut’s critics. The businessman and GOP politician ran in part on a school-choice and anti-Common Core platform in the gubernatorial primary last year, and his appointment to lead the department alarmed Democrats, teachers unions, and many in the education establishment.

Twice, Reagan, who chairs the committee, cut off testimony by speakers when they began criticizing Edelblut.

“You are to address the amendment, or don’t speak,” he told Zandra Rice Hawkins, the director of Granite State Progress, a liberal advocacy group.

When Rice Hawkins continued to talk about the commissioner’s clashes with the State Board of Education and a prior donation to a legal fight against the department he now leads, Reagan cut her off again.

“That’s not the subject of the amendment,” he said.

“It is the subject of a power grab,” she retorted.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)