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Corbett to tap new education secretary

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By The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 12:53 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG — The superintendent of a large suburban Harrisburg school district will be Gov. Tom Corbett's nominee for education secretary and replace Ron Tomalis, who after a busy and rocky two-year tenure will move into an advisory role in the administration, Corbett said Wednesday.

William Harner of the Cumberland Valley School District in Cumberland County will become the acting secretary June 1, Corbett said. He will require Senate confirmation to take the job of secretary.

Harner, a retired Army officer, will bring public school experience to an administration stacked with advocates for private, parochial, charter and cybercharter schools. In an interview Wednesday, he said the public school teachers in Cheltenham Township outside Philadelphia, where he grew up, “changed my world and my opportunities.”

“I was lucky to be in a great district, and in this role I'm going to do my best to make sure every district is a great district,” Harner said.

Corbett did not explain the reason for the change and an administration spokesman did not return messages Wednesday. Tomalis was not quoted in the statement, and he was replaced at two public speaking events Tuesday by one of his top deputies.

Corbett called Harner “an effective problem solver able to unite all sides in a common goal of educational excellence.” Tomalis, he said, worked hard to make Pennsylvania's public education system benefit all students.

The Department of Education oversees more than $14 billion in state and federal money for Pennsylvania's public schools, charter schools, libraries, universities and colleges, making it one of the state's most important agencies.

The Philadelphia Inquirer first reported last week that Tomalis would be leaving the post.

Tomalis had some successes and some failures as Corbett aggressively tried to empower private and charter schools while challenging school boards to stop raising taxes and universities to stop raising tuition.

A top Corbett priority of creating the state's first school voucher program to help low-income students in struggling public schools died in the Legislature, although it resulted in an expanded tax credit designed to achieve the same goal.

Tomalis served at a time when Corbett imposed deep cuts in aid to schools and universities to balance the disappearance of federal aid to bail out recession-wracked state budgets. The cuts in public school aid, which fell most heavily on the state's poorest school districts, helped speed the near-collapse of the Chester-Upland district in southeastern Pennsylvania before state lawmakers and federal courts intervened.

Tomalis began an overhaul of the public school teacher evaluation process and pushed for clearer assessments of school district performance. He also oversaw a school cheating investigation that led to suspensions and stricter testing protocols.

As a Penn State trustee, Tomalis helped lead an investigative committee in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. As an adviser, he will focus on issues raised by Corbett's Post-Secondary Education Advisory Commission, which he led.

He leaves at a time the Legislature is battling over how to address longstanding complaints that charter and cyber schools are overpaid by taxpayers and need stronger state oversight.

There was no immediate word on Tomalis' salary. The education secretary is paid nearly $150,000.

Harner, 56, retired from the Army in 1998 after getting degrees in education while serving. He started a second career as a school administrator, racking up experience at schools in Gainesville, Ga.; Greenville County, S.C.; New Orleans and Philadelphia. He took over at Cumberland Valley in 2008.

Cumberland Valley is among the state's top school districts in income and size, with about 8,000 students and a budget of about $102 million. Its graduation rate of 93 percent is higher than the state's 83 percent average, according to Department of Education data.

He was a high school principal before he became superintendent of South Carolina's largest school district, Greenville County, in 2000. He went on to become a deputy superintendent in Philadelphia schools, and told a Cumberland Valley school crowd in 2008 that it was “an experience I wouldn't wish on anybody,” the Patriot-News of Harrisburg reported at the time.

In New Orleans, he oversaw the reopening of nine school buildings in the post-Hurricane Katrina era, Corbett's statement said.

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