William Harner, acting Pennsylvania education secretary, resigns abruptly

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HARRISBURG -- Gov. Tom Corbett on Monday forced out his nominee to lead the state Department of Education, William Harner, three months after the selection was announced.

A spokeswoman for the governor declined to say why Mr. Corbett asked for the resignation of Mr. Harner, who had served as acting secretary of education since June 1, other than to say "it is entirely a personnel matter."

Aides to the top two Republican senators, Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati and Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, said the administration had indicated the governor will nominate Carolyn Dumaresq, a former superintendent and teachers union official who is now acting education secretary, to the position. But the governor's communications director, Lynn Lawson, said no decision had been made about a nomination.

"It hasn't yet been determined if she will be the nominee or remain in acting status," she said.

Mr. Harner, 56, of Carlisle, previously served five years as superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District in Mechanicsburg, across the Susquehanna River from the capital. The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, citing an unnamed school district official, reported Monday that the school board had voted 7-2 in a closed-door session to not retain Mr. Harner when his contract expired June 30. The newspaper described a human resources matter that was confirmed to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by a source in state government with knowledge of the situation.

A spokeswoman for the school district said it does not comment on personnel matters. Four members of the Cumberland Valley school board declined to comment and referred the Post-Gazette to the district spokeswoman.

The government source said that Mr. Harner's troubles began in January or February, when an employee of the school district, while vacationing, received an email from Mr. Harner asking how the employee looked in a Speedo swimsuit. That email, according to the source, led to a complaint to the district's human resources office, which in turn led to the school board hiring outside counsel to investigate the matter. That outside counsel turned up more than a dozen other complaints about Mr. Harner, most involving comments he made in poor taste.

His personality "rubbed people the wrong way," the source said. The school board's behind-closed-doors probe was running concurrent to the Corbett administration's own vetting. On May 15, Mr. Corbett announced that his education secretary, Ron Tomalis, would leave the department to become an adviser to the governor on higher education, and that he would nominate Mr. Harner as secretary.

Mr. Harner, a West Point graduate, had a 20-year military career before turning to the field of education, according to the governor's office. He served as a middle school principal and superintendent in South Carolina and as deputy chief executive officer of the Philadelphia school district. He was considered several years ago to become superintendent of Toledo Public Schools, according to The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

Sometime this month, the source said, the Corbett administration caught wind of the fact that the Cumberland Valley school board had held a closed-door vote to not renew Mr. Harner's contract. Sen. Andrew Dinniman of Chester County, the ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, said the announcement Monday showed a failure by the administration in checking its nominee.

"If the governor's office is going to put people before the Senate without proper vetting, how in the future can we trust any nominee he puts before us?" Mr. Dinniman said. "Why did it take three months, while education is facing crucial questions?"

The government source disputed that characterization, saying Mr. Harner's Monday resignation was not due to an absence of vetting, but rather an abundance of it.

"Somebody swept this under the rug, and the Corbett administration swept it back out," the source said.

Ms. Dumaresq, who had been executive deputy secretary, became the acting secretary of education with Mr. Harner's resignation. She is a former superintendent of the Central Dauphin and Steelton-Highspire school districts and has taught at the Harrisburg campuses of Temple and Penn State universities. She was executive director of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the teachers union, and president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

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Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com. Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com. First Published August 26, 2013 5:45 PM


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