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President Ed Thomas of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska represents 27,000 Alaska Natives, mostly in Southeast Alaska, among other things providing education and employment training programs.
At a recent Native Issues Forum in Juneau, he asked Juneau legislators why they hadn’t ever seen the state’s Commissioner of the Department of Education and Early Development.
“Where is he, we haven’t heard anything from him,” Thomas asked.
The answer is simple, but it’s not one that makes education advocates happy: Alaska had no education commissioner.
The state’s top education job had been vacant since Gov. Sean Parnell replaced former Commissioner Larry LeDoux after his November election to a full term, but the new commissioner didn’t start work in Juneau until Thursday.
Gov. Parnell replaced former Education Commissioner Larry LeDoux, first appointed by previous Gov. Sarah Palin, with his own appointee, Mike Hanley.
At the time of his appointment last year, Hanley was serving as principal of Anchorage’s Kincaid Elementary School, and wanted to remain there to help with that school’s transition.
As education advocates have been gathering in Juneau to push for more school funding, legislators say the Department of Education and Early Development has been leaderless, and unable to provide views to Legislative committees.
The issue came to a head recently, when the Senate Education Committee couldn’t get from the then-leaderless department a opinion on school meals and wether the state should help some schools provide breakfasts.
Senate President Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, began publicly expressing his unhappiness earlier this week.
“We can’t get an answer out of you guys about hot lunches for orphans,” Stevens complained.
Acting commissioner Les Morse said he department was neutral on the bill, but it wasn’t disputing that food was important to children. Expanding the program isn’t in the governor’s budget, and it is a policy call for the Legislature to make, he said.
Stevens said the department has been without a commissioner for too long.
“I’ve never met the commissioner, we lost the old one months and months ago, we’ve been meeting as a task force to deal with educational issues and the commissioner has not been there,” Stevens said.
The previous commissioner, LeDoux, was formerly superintendent of schools in Kodiak, Stevens hometown.
Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, said he knows the new commissioner, but they had to wait to long for him to take office.
“I’m happy that it’s Mike Hanley, but with a 90 day session, three weeks is a lot of time to not have a commissioner,” he said.
In the meantime, the department and the administration’s education policy has been “in limbo,” he said.
Tuck served on an interim school funding task force, but the lack of input from the department made it difficult to develop new school funding plans.
“We didn’t know what the new commissioner’s plans and ideas would be,” Tuck said.
“I’ve been really upset that there is not a commissioner,” Stevens said. “There should be a commissioner, we’re dealing with some very important issues.”
Parnell said the delay was not significant.
“I take a four-year view of this,” he said. “Waiting until day 10 or 15 is not that long to wait for a new education commissioner.
Parnell said the delay was caused by the need to leave his former job in the lurch.
“The man is a principal at Kincaid Elementary,” he said. “He felt a responsibility to the children and parents at that school to provide a smooth transition, which he’s done.
Parnell said Hanley will be able to win over skeptical legislators.
“If legislators give him the chance and give him an opportunity to talk with them about his vision for our youngsters’ future, I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised,” Parnell said.
The Senate Education Committee passed the school meals bill, Senate Bill 3, out of committee without hearing the administration’s position on it.
Leighow said Hanley will begin meeting with legislators as soon as this week.
• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.