Education commissioner denies he politicized job interview

  • Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut talks to Bow High students about mental health last month. Edelblut had denied over politicizing an interview with an applicant for a newly created position to lead the state’s charter school office. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

For the Monitor
Published: 12/20/2017 5:34:54 PM

New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut denies politicizing an interview with an applicant for a position to lead the state’s charter school office.

But the two Democrats on New Hampshire’s five-member Executive Council say the complaints from the job applicant, made public in an opinion column in the Monitor, further raise alarms that Edelblut’s acting “overtly political” and may be asked to “tamp down” on such activity.

In the opinion piece, titled “A disturbing exchange with Commissioner Edelblut,” Karin Cevasco highlighted her interaction with the commissioner during a recent job interview for a new statewide position overseeing and assisting charter schools.

Cevasco, who co-founded and served as board chairwoman and school director of the Gate City Charter School for the Arts in Merrimack, said the first question Edelblut asked her was about Common Core educational standards.

“When I said I thought they were reasonable standards, he questioned their effectiveness and asked how we can fix public education,” she wrote.

Edelblut, a conservative former state representative, was narrowly edged out by now-Gov. Chris Sununu in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary. During his campaign for governor, Edelblut was a vocal critic of Common Core, which many on the right have long opposed.

Cevasco said Edelblut later “asked me how I felt about the Education Savings Accounts that would be established by Senate Bill 193. I said something noncommittal since I did not consider SB 193 relevant to the position we were discussing.”

“He responded that we have to get ESAs passed, and that it is the role of this charter school position to advocate for school choice. That floored me. As far as I knew, the Department of Education was not supposed to lobby that way,” she added.

Speaking with the Monitor hours later, Edelblut said, “I’m sorry that she didn’t feel like she had a good experience in that interview process.”

Edelblut denied saying that passing SB 193 – a controversial bill that would establish a school voucher-like program – was what the department wanted.

“I don’t think that SB 193 was discussed. But I think the idea of school choice was discussed. In the context of this is an educational issue that we’re going to have to deal with as a department,” he said.

He also stated that, “I don’t believe that it was overly politicized.”

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky disagreed.

Volinsky, along with the other Democrat on the Council, Chris Pappas, opposed Edelblut’s nomination earlier this year.

“Whether I support him or not, I’m concerned about the commissioner’s role being as political as it is,” Volinsky said. “I think prior commissioners engaged in activities that took them as far from the political realm as they could once they got confirmed.”

Volinsky added that he’s troubled by Edelblut’s “overtly political activities and using some of the resources of the state to further his personal political ambitions.”

Pappas agreed, adding that he thinks Edelblut “should be like all other commissioners in our state and steer clear of politics and focus on his job.”

The three Republican councilors, David Wheeler, Joe Kenney and Russell Prescott, all voted to confirm Edelblut.

But Volinsky predicted that, “I think some colleagues would join me, even though they’re from the other party, in asking the commissioner to tamp down his overtly political activities. And I will engage in those discussions with my colleagues.”

That’s not an opinion shared by the governor.

Asked by the Monitor about the job applicant’s criticism of Edelblut, Sununu said he was not familiar with the opinion piece.

But he said that “overall I’m happy with his (Edelblut’s) performance.”

Cevasco said the posting for the charter school position states the responsibilities of the position include providing “assistance to stakeholders in other school choice opportunities,” and “developing or revising school choice policies.”

Matt Southerton, the head of the New Hampshire Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said he’d earlier expressed concern about the charter school job posting because it made mention of broader school choice options when legislative language that established the position only referred to charter schools.

“The position described in the notice did not seem to align with the language that was passed by the state Legislature and ... no single person could be expected to carry out all these duties,” he said.

The department badly needs a charter school coordinator, he said. The charter school office at the department has been basically unstaffed since 2014, he said, with no one point-person available for charter school candidates to ask questions about starting a school, or for existing operations to get help navigating state and federal laws.

“Some schools have expressed concern that there is no charter school person at the department who can answer basic, let alone highly technical, questions related to public charter schools,” he said.

Southerton said it was his understanding that the position was intended to be administrative and not political – as it should be.

“It is really a question of credibility and public trust. It is in the best interest of the department and those that they serve for all program administrators to remain politically neutral, in my opinion,” he said.

Concord Democratic Sen. Dan Feltes, the prime sponsor of the legislation that created the charter school position, said he’d talked with Edelblut about the job’s scope of duties.

“After discussing this with Commissioner Edelblut, my understanding is the job description will be modified to reflect (the law), which lays out duties and charges of the charter school position and was the product of hard work by a wide range of stakeholders and legislators of both parties,” he said.

Edelblut confirmed that the position would be amended, but said that while charter schools would be the job’s principal responsibility, non-public schools and homeschooling would remain be under its purview.

The position has not yet been filled, a department spokeswoman said.

(Staff Writer Lola Duffort contributed to this report.)

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