Education commissioner feels ‘no animosity’ over being replaced

Michael Hanley, one of the few state commissioners held over from the administration of Gov. Sean Parnell, is on the way out.

On Thursday, the office of Gov. Bill Walker announced that Hanley, head of Alaska’s Department of Education and Early Development, will be replaced on March 1 by Susan McCauley, director of the department’s teaching and learning support division.

“There’s no animosity on my part,” Hanley said on Thursday. “This is part of the process. You rarely get to pick your own time as a commissioner.”

McCauley will serve as an interim commissioner pending the appointment of a permanent replacement, the governor’s office announced.

Since Hanley became commissioner in 2011, he has promoted a new standardized testing program called the Alaska Measures of Progress. That program, implemented last spring after years of work and preparation, was wracked by problems. Last week, the state announced it would abandon the exam.

Speaking by phone, state school board president James Fields said the testing issue was to some extent out of his control; the problems it faced were not his doing. When things went wrong, “he managed that pretty well,” Fields said.

Unlike other state cabinet-level positions, the commissioner of education is the choice of the state school board, whose members are appointed by the governor.

Fields said his personal opinion is that the board is “moving in a different direction” in terms of what it wants to see from the Department of Education. It wants the state to see Alaska more in the role of a coordinator of local efforts than an accountability or compliance officer in charge of making sure things are done a certain way.

“The reality is the best accountability is local,” Fields said.

Hanley said he had a previously scheduled a meeting with the governor on Wednesday to talk about the school board’s relationship with his office. On Tuesday, Fields called him to warn what that meeting would entail.

Hanley said the “board is kind of going in a different direction,” and while he might have been appointed under the administration of Gov. Sean Parnell, he “never felt like an outsider with (Gov. Walker).”

The change comes at a remarkably turbulent time for the state’s school system. Amid the threat of multimillion-dollar budget cuts by the Alaska Legislature, it also must adapt to new federal statutes under the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the federal No Child Left Behind system. The state also must find a new standardized testing system that meets federal guidelines, then implement it before next spring.

“We’ve got a tough road ahead, even without a transition,” Hanley said.

Hanley will stay in his office until March 1, when McCauley will begin serving as interim commissioner. After that, both Fields and Hanley said they expect it will take several months before a permanent replacement is found. Fields said he doesn’t expect it before the end of the Legislative session.

“We could be at least six months out before we find a new commissioner,” Hanley said.

Regardless of who fills his chair, Hanley said that person should keep in mind that “it’s very easy to make decisions from a desk in Juneau, but it’s hard to make good ones. You need to be out in the field.”

As for what’s next for him, Hanley said he isn’t sure. He has a “few potential options,” but he still has a passion for working with children, and that’s something he would consider.

“It could be that I could go back to a school,” he said. “It’d be very invigorating, I think.”

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