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Pennsylvania education chief expects easier transition when she steps aside

| Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
Carolyn Dumaresq is secretary of the state Department of Education.

HARRISBURG — Carolyn Dumaresq agreed to become the state Department of Education's third administrator in four months — but with an end date in mind, she said.

Dumaresq, 66, a lifelong educator from Dauphin County, told Gov. Tom Corbett she'd lead the department until his term ends in 2014 and then retire. She plans to give up the $139,971 job so she has time to continue to show her Shetland sheepdogs, Max and Callie, at working-dog competitions, teach dog obedience classes and volunteer with no-kill shelters.

Though critics find the abrupt replacements at the top of the agency problematic, “The bureaucracy tends to run itself when the people underneath (the secretary) are stable,” Dumaresq told the Tribune-Review.

Corbett chose Dumaresq, who has department experience, to become acting secretary last month when he sought and received former Secretary William Harner's resignation. For Dumaresq, who was executive deputy secretary, the transition was smooth. She needed only to make a short trip through a small coffee room to move files and books into her new office.

Yet the changes in recent months must have “all the other folks, the nonpolitical appointees, wondering where the direction's coming from,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “It leaves a lot of uncertainty.”

With several turnovers at the top of a state agency, “there's some question who's really making policy,” said Robert Strauss, an economics and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “It's asking the improbable of career people in government.”

If Corbett wins a second term, he would have an opportunity to appoint “a fresh team” to run the department, Borick said.

Harner left when the governor's office learned he made “inappropriate comments” in his previous job as superintendent of Cumberland Valley School District, the administration said. Ronald Tomalis, Corbett's first Education secretary, stepped down in May but remains on the department staff, drawing a salary of $139,971.

None of that hampers the department's ability to carry out its mission, Dumaresq contends. With 244 employees and an $11.6 billion budget — mostly money for public schools — the department oversees programs and standards for 1.7 million students, 302,000 school employees and 122,165 teachers.

Dumaresq ran an operational and educational consulting firm from 2008 until joining the Corbett team in January 2011. She began her career in education as a high school math teacher and became principal of an alternative school and a personnel director. She was superintendent of two central Pennsylvania districts and executive director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.

She worked in the Department of Education from 1976 to 1983. Corbett appointed her as secretary, instead of nominating her for Senate confirmation, a spokeswoman said.

The governor might be well served with a caretaker appointee through 2014, Borick said, especially given Dumaresq's experience.

One of Corbett's priorities is promoting school choice — tuition vouchers that enable parents to send their children to public, private or parochial schools. The PSEA, where Dumaresq worked from 1996 to 2008, has been a key opponent of the idea.

Dumaresq acknowledged “some people find that confusing” when asked about her career transitions. Her experience gives her a better understanding of all sides, she said, emphasizing that she knows for whom she works.

The issue has stalled in the Legislature since Corbett took office. Former Republican Gov. Tom Ridge could not win support for school choice.

Strauss said some educators with whom he has spoken have expressed concern about “a diminished Department of Education,” on which they rely as a resource.

Department records indeed show reduced staff, from 592 in 2002-03. That may delay the ability to get help to some districts, Dumaresq said.

“As department staff has been cut, it may take longer to get them an answer,” she said. “But they will get an answer.”

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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