After one education leader quits, Malloy expresses confidence in another

Two days after one top state education official abruptly resigned in the face of signs that Gov-elect Dan Malloy was considering replacing him, Malloy Thursday issued a public statement of confidence in another: Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti.

“I’ve admired Mike Meotti’s work from afar, and I’m looking forward to working with him more closely,” Malloy said in a statement.

Meotti’s contract as the state’s higher education commissioner does not expire until July 2013, so even if Malloy wanted a new commissioner, he held little leverage to do so anytime soon. The decision of who runs the State Department of Higher Education is ultimately up to the 11-member Board of Governors. Malloy will get to appoint three board members during his first year in office.

meotti and mcquiilan

Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti (l) chats with Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan before a meeting this month

Education officials say Malloy’s statements signal Meotti is not just a commissioner that Malloy is stuck with, but rather someone who shares the governor-elect’s goals.

“The biggest challenge facing Connecticut and the nation is it is really essential to have more adults go on past a high school diploma and finish college,” Meotti said in an interview. There are currently 200,600 students in public and private universities in the state. Meotti estimates about three out of every four high school graduates in Connecticut go to college.

Malloy’s expression of support for Meotti followed the unexpected decision of state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan to resign. On Monday, McQuillan stunned members of a committee formed to propose change top the state’s school finance structure when he he announced he was postponing discussion of the issue and angrily snapped at members who objected.

On Tuesday, McQuillan said he would resign effective Jan. 5, the day Malloy is inaugurated.

“I reached this decision yesterday when I realized that I no longer wanted to do this work and saw all too plainly that the stresses of my job are more than they should be and more than I am willing to accept,”McQuillan wrote in his resignation letter.

McQuillan had earlier said he wanted to stay on the job, which he has held for four years. His term was set to expire at the end of the year, but the state board members voted to keep him on until Malloy has decided who he wants as the next education leader.

Malloy has said McQuillan is a strong contender for the position but said he is also looking elsewhere to fill the position. During a recent trip to Washington he told reporters he had asked U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan for names of possible candidates.

Malloy said yesterday during an interview he was “shocked” when he heard McQuillan was planning on stepping down and is now moving forward with finding a replacement.

“I am looking for a track record of success, great potential, someone who thinks outside the box, someone who stresses collaboration and change,” he said, adding he is unsure how soon he will have someone selected.

Allan Taylor, the chairman of the State Board of Education, expects the board to appoint current Deputy-commissioner George Coleman as acting commissioner until Malloy makes clear who he would like to run the agency. The SDOE is a $3 billion agency, with two-thirds of that money being funneled to cities and towns.

Meotti, 57, has been the commissioner of the $71.3 million State Department of Higher Education for two years. His salary is $182,126. There are 48 full-time employees.

The department’s responsibilities include approving new programs and degrees at the state’s public, private and for-profit colleges. The department also deals with policy related issues surrounding higher education including making sure degrees being offered align with workforce needs. Student financial aid and various grants and scholarships are also handled by the department.

The governor and lawmakers have repeatedly considered merging the Department of Higher Education with the Department of Education; the idea has been proposed four times in the last two decades, according to a report released last week by the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee.

But Meotti said eliminating or consolidating the agency makes no sense.

“It won’t save any money and the higher education agenda would be put at risk of being lost,” he said, noting the only a few states have adopted that governance structure for higher education.