Like Tammy Wynette, Gov. Bill Haslam has promised to “stand by his man.” The Tennessee governor doesn’t agree with the criticism leveled at his commissioner of education, and has no plans to ask Kevin Huffman to leave his administration.
Huffman has been the most controversial member of Haslam’s cabinet, and that’s saying something. I recently noted this to the governor, who took great umbrage at my suggestion that some of his commissioners have been under fire. That’s not true, he told the Press Editorial Board earlier this month.
While I respect the governor for his loyalty, Haslam’s first term has seen its fair share of controversy as a result of the actions (and maybe in some cases, inaction) of some of his commissioners.
In February, Kate O’Day resigned as commissioner of the state Department of Children’s Services amid reports that 120 children died between 2009-11 after the state was made aware that they might be victims of abuse or neglect. The Tennessean and a number of other newspapers sued the state after the Haslam administration refused to provide details of 31 more children who died under similar circumstances during the first half of 2012.
Last month, Steve Cates resigned as Haslam’s commissioner of the state Department of General Services. Administration officials say Cates had promised to only serve in that role for two years, but graciously stuck around a few months more to help the governor. Cates was credited with engineering and carrying out a plan to privatize much of Tennessee government’s office space. Also under Cates’ leadership, the Department of General Services has been accused of some bid and contract irregularities.
It’s Huffman, however, who has generated the most negative headlines of late. As Press staff writer Nathan Baker has reported in last few weeks, Haslam’s education commissioner has been targeted for removal by Democrats, teachers and, most recently, school superintendents.
A petition signed by more than 50 school superintendents (including Washington County Schools Superintendent Ron Dykes, Elizabethton Schools Director Ed Alexander and Unicoi County Schools Superintendent Denise Brown) was sent to Haslam accusing Huffman and his department of showing “no interest” in working with local school leaders.
“The bottom line is that we are at a critical point in the implementation of key reforms that I believe will lead to continued progress in education, and this work is simply too important to get sidetracked,” the governor responded in a letter he sent to dissenting superintendents last week.
In other words, Haslam told the superintendents, Huffman is not going anywhere. Huffman is the governor’s point man on what the GOP calls education reform. More importantly, he’s the governor’s heavy-handed hatchet man, and he appears to be quite good at striking bone. Presently, Huffman has his sights set on ending tenure for teachers as they know it now.