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Corbett asks for, receives resignation of education chief

| Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, 2:00 p.m.
Pennsylvania education secretary William Harner.
Pennsylvania education secretary William Harner.

HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Corbett on Monday forced the resignation of his acting Education secretary over what one administration official characterized as inappropriate comments during his tenure as a school superintendent.

The governor's office said Corbett requested and received the resignation of Acting Secretary of Education William E. Harner. Corbett's spokeswoman Lynn Lawson termed it “entirely a personnel matter.”

A Corbett administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter said it involved multiple and inappropriate workplace comments by Harner, who had been the superintendent of Cumberland Valley School District in suburban Harrisburg.

In a statement posted online by The Sentinel of Carlisle, Harner said he was disappointed that he was out as Education secretary and said “detractors” to his leadership approach “have succeeded in undermining my confirmation with a campaign of distortions.”

“It remains my understanding and belief that any complaints made during my tenure as superintendent were fully investigated, and no matter was ever determined to be of merit or legal consequence,” Harner said.

He had served as acting Education secretary since June 1. The Senate had not confirmed his nomination.

Corbett named Carolyn C. Dumaresq, the department's executive deputy secretary, to immediately replace him. School begins in many districts this week. She is the former executive director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

Dumaresq becomes the agency's third secretary under Corbett. The first, Ronald Tomalis, left the post in May but remains on state payroll as a special adviser to the governor on higher education, drawing a salary of $139,931, the department said.

“How many secretaries of education does it take to change a light bulb?” said Eric Epstein, co-founder of the reform group Rock the Capital.

The department's spokesman could not be reached for comment on Tomalis' workload.

“For the administration to create chaos on the opening of school is a sad commentary, to say the least,” said Sen. Andy Dinniman of West Chester, ranking Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. Corbett's office should have vetted its nominee, he said.

“They wasted three months of valuable time when we could have moved forward on the issues of schools going broke and what should be the requirements for graduation tests,” Dinniman said. He said Harner took a “listening tour” last week in his district.

Harner was superintendent of Cumberland Valley in Mechanicsburg for five years. In 2004, the Association of School Librarians named him National Administrator of the Year. A West Point graduate, he retired as a lieutenant colonel after a 20-year Army career.

Harner's dismissal did not surprise Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, said Pileggi's spokesman, Erik Arneson.

“There had been some discussion for a few weeks about the possibility of Dr. Harner's name being withdrawn,” Arneson said.

But, said Dinniman: “If there's a reason, say the reason. We were never given an explanation why Tomalis left.”

Robert P. Strauss, a professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said school board members and superintendents have expressed concerns over the past few years about a “diminished Department of Education,” on which they should be able to rely for prompt answers.

Rep. Glen Grell, a Mechanicsburg Republican whose district includes the Cumberland Valley district, said he doesn't know why Harner was forced out.

“I always had very good experiences with Dr. Harner. I was as surprised as anyone to hear the news,” Grell said.

Dumaresq is a former math teacher and former school superintendent of Central Dauphin and Steelton-Highspire. She worked in the Education Department from 1976 to 1983 and joined the department again in 2011.

The change follows a series of personnel moves by the Corbett administration. Three Cabinet members have left his administration since 2012. Corbett, a Shaler Republican, recently appointed his third chief of staff, Leslie Gromis Baker, and named new legislative and communication directors.

“Between questionable hires, failed policies and a revolving door of aides who have left for a variety of reasons, Tom Corbett simply has failed to create a functional administration that can help Pennsylvania,” said Marc Eisenstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Party.

Michael Barley, Corbett's campaign manager, said Corbett has been effective — from providing “more state funding in education than at any time in our state's history” to tax cuts and creating 130,000 private-sector jobs.

The staff turnover, Strauss said, “complicates the governor's life a lot.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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