AUGUSTA –– Gov. Paul LePage on Monday appointed a new acting education chief, his second in two years.

The governor tapped Tom Desjardin, his senior policy adviser for education and natural resources, to serve as acting commissioner of the Department of Education. Desjardin has been in the LePage administration since 2013.

Desjardin replaces former education chief James Rier. Rier has been on extended medical leave. Adrienne Bennett, LePage’s spokeswoman, said Rier may return as deputy commissioner upon his full recovery. Bennett said Desjardin will serve in an acting capacity until he is confirmed by the Legislature.

Desjardin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Florida State University and a Ph.D. in U.S. history at the University of Maine in Orono. According to the administration, he is an 11th-generation Mainer who was educated in the state’s public school system. He graduated from Edward Little High School in Auburn.

He has taught at four different colleges and universities, including the University of Maine at Augusta and Bowdoin College, and has served as a fellow at the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History in New York City.

Desjardin has written several books on the Civil War with an emphasis on Maine history and Gettysburg, two of which were nominated for the prestigious Lincoln Prize.

Desjardin’s appointment is LePage’s third for education chief since he was first elected in 2010.

Steve Bowen served as the education commissioner between 2011 and 2013. Bowen, who helped LePage pass the state’s charter school law in 2011 and implement a controversial school report card system in 2012, left the administration in the fall of 2013.

Rier served two terms on the State Board of Education and was chairman from 1997 to 2000. He joined the Department of Education in 2003 as director of finance and operations, and was named deputy commissioner in 2011. While on the State Board of Education, Rier developed the Maine Learning Standards and created the Essential Programs and Services funding formula that determines how state funds are distributed to local school districts. Rier served in an acting capacity until the Maine Senate unanimously endorsed him to take the job permanently in February 2013. He was placed on indefinite medical leave in November. The department’s chief academic officer, Rachelle Tome, served as acting commissioner.

Bennett would not comment on whether Rier’s health issues were a determining factor in replacing him as commissioner. She said that he would be welcomed back to the Department of Education and that the administration hoped for a speedy and full recovery.

The administration declined a request to interview Desjardin. Bennett said he will make public statements during the confirmation process.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, the union representing Maine teachers, issued a statement that raised questions about the depth of Desjardin’s education background.

“The members of the Maine Education Association, who are teachers, support staff, university professors and employees, look forward to working with anyone who will put our public school students first,” she said. “While it is not clear now what qualifications Mr. Desjardin has in the field of education, the MEA is eager to work together to ensure every student is given a chance to receive the best possible public school education.”

If confirmed by the Legislature, Desjardin would carry forward LePage’s education priorities. The governor has already indicated he would like to remove a cap on the number of state-licensed charter schools. State law presently limits the number to 10 schools.

Steve Mistler can be contacted at 620-7016 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: stevemistler

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