State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Turnover at the top of the Dept. of Education

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | May 15, 2013 1:53 PM
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Photo by Cumberland Valley School District


The nominee to replace Education Secretary Ron Tomalis was plucked from just across the river: William Harner, superintendent of the suburban Cumberland Valley School District near Harrisburg, will assume the top slot at the Department of Education in June, pending confirmation by the state Senate. 

Gov. Corbett announced the change Wednesday. Secretary Ron Tomalis will step down at the end of the month.

Harner has spent the last several years as a school administrator up and down the eastern seaboard. Before he came to work in Cumberland County, he was an administrator in a special school district created by the state in New Orleans meant to deal with under-performing schools. Before that, he served briefly as a deputy superintendent for Philadelphia Schools. In 2008, he told an audience in Cumberland County it was "an experience I wouldn't wish on anybody," as the Patriot-News reported.

His career also includes stints running South Carolina's largest school district as well as running individual schools in South Carolina and Georgia. Harner began working as a school administrator after retiring from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel.

Jim Buckheit, head of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said he's glad to see the governor's nominee for education secretary has had hands-on experience running schools and school districts. Tomalis, the outgoing secretary, had a background in education policy, but not as a school administrator.

"I think it's important to have somebody who has served in the trenches so to speak, and can relate, and actually has firsthand experience about how schools work and what the needs of children are," said Beckheit.

Sources said Wednesday that a search for "in the trenches" experience is exactly what the administration was seeking - and others call the turnover an attempt to change the way the governor's policies are received by educators -- in part, to better position the governor for re-election.

Tomalis is known in Capitol circles as a policy wonk. Lawmakers have credited him with being accessible and able to explain the governor's policies. But others are quick to note Tomalis is no salesman. And some point out he's not one to cultivate relationships with educators.

"He would come in and make his speeches and leave," said one source.

On top of a personality some have called "gruff" is the fact that Tomalis has been at the forefront of a number of unpopular moves.

Schools have seen less funding from the state - due, as the administration insists, to a loss of federal stimulus funds.

Teachers have also bristled at the department's handling of the teacher cheating scandal on statewide tests, in which some say the governor's office was all too quick to demonize more teachers than were actually involved. Others say selecting Harner represents a shift by the governor's office from focusing on the negative aspects of the state's public schools to speaking to the teachers, schools, and students square in the middle of the bell curve: the ones performing well.

Tomalis will take a newly-created position as an assistant to the governor on higher education - a post some suggest is meant to be a temporary soft landing.

The Department of Education secretary is statutorily able to make $149,804 a year, but members of Corbett’s cabinet have been denying the cost of living salary increases they’re granted by law. Tomalis has been collecting a $139,931 salary.

According to a spokesman for the state Office of Administration, Harner’s salary will be the same.

This post was updated with salary information at 4:07 p.m.

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