HARRISBURG - Gov. Corbett made it official Wednesday: Pennsylvania Education Secretary Ron Tomalis is leaving his cabinet post, to be replaced by a suburban Harrisburg school superintendent.
The new twist: Tomalis will be staying on as a "special adviser" to Corbett on higher-education issues - and at the same cost to the taxpayers.
In his new position, Tomalis will draw the same $149,804 salary he earns now as secretary of education.
The Inquirer reported Saturday that Tomalis was looking for a new job and was not intending to stay past summer. A key to his decision was a growing behind-the-scenes tension between him and some members of Corbett's inner circle, according to administration sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In a news release Wednesday, Corbett said he was nominating William Harner, now superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District, to succeed Tomalis as education secretary. The release did not give a reason for Tomalis' exit from the cabinet post.
The release said Tomalis will now be responsible for reviewing and implementing recommendations made last fall in a report by Corbett's Postsecondary Advisory Commission. Among other steps, the panel proposed that Pennsylvania colleges meet performance-based targets to win new state funding.
In an interview Wednesday, Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said that the panel's findings were important to the governor and that he wanted someone experienced to guide their implementation. "We spend a lot of taxpayer money on education," Harley said. "The governor does not want this to be a report that sits on a shelf without being acted on."
Behind the scenes, several insiders said the new post also amounts to a soft landing for Tomalis. With a career in state and federal education policy-making, he has been part of the administration since Corbett took office in 2011 and was on the receiving end of more than a few political darts in that time.
Tomalis defended Corbett's first-year slashing of aid to schools and colleges to make up for disappearing federal dollars, a deeply unpopular decision that has garnered criticism to this day. Also, his department's initial handling of the Chester Upland district's near-financial collapse last year strained relations with both Republican and Democratic legislators from the Southeast.
Tomalis also took strong steps against alleged cheating on standardized achievement tests, and against two cyber charter schools for not meeting state standards.
Corbett's Wednesday news release praised Tomalis' tenure, saying he had "worked hard to make Pennsylvania's public education system benefit all of Pennsylvania's students to ensure their success beyond graduation."
Neither Tomalis nor Harner could be reached for comment. Harner needs to be confirmed by a vote in the Senate.
A retired Army officer turned educator, Harner, 56, once served as an aide to then-Philadelphia schools chief Paul Vallas. He has an extensive background in public school administration, having worked for districts in New Orleans, Greenville, S.C., and Gainesville, Ga. When he took over the Cumberland Valley district, the Harrisburg Patriot-News quoted him as saying his time in Philadelphia was "an experience I wouldn't wish on anybody."
In an interview Wednesday, Vallas, who was Philadelphia schools chief from 2002 to 2007, recalled Harner as "my troubleshooter."
"He was very capable, very knowledgeable, very process-oriented, very well organized," Vallas said. "He also had a good understanding of instruction."
Vallas said he relied on Harner's expertise after a midyear budget deficit was discovered and the district had to make cuts.
"He really created an excellent process, identifying things we could reduce without affecting our core programs," Vallas said. "That took an understanding of finance, organization, and what constitutes quality education programs."
As for Harner's selection for Pennsylvania's top education job, Vallas said, "He'll be a solid choice."