TEA: Neeley Steps Down

Official story: Forced out when informed by governor's staff that he's ready for new leadership at Texas Education Agency

Shirley Neeley
Shirley Neeley

Shirley Neeley, out of step with the Governor's Office, has tendered her resignation as the state's education commissioner, effective July 1. Neeley, the first woman to serve as Texas education commissioner, wanted to complete a five-year term as the state's top education official. There are rumors that Neeley's departure is motivated by health concerns. (She announced earlier this month that she had been diagnosed, for a second time, with melanoma; a cancerous growth was removed from her leg, and she was given a clean bill of health.) The official word, however, is that she was forced out rather abruptly when she was informed by the governor's staff – not even the governor – on June 15 that he's ready for new leadership at the agency. "I can compare my situation to that of a superintendent when a school board decides to take no action or not extend their contract," Neeley wrote to agency staff and supporters. "Anyway you look at it, the message is clear: When it is time to go, it is time to go."

Neeley can take pride in the fact that she served as long as any education commissioner appointed by Gov. Rick Perry. In his 61Ú2 years in office, Perry has appointed three commissioners: Jim Nelson (actually a holdover from Gov. Bush's administration), Felipe Alanis, and Neeley. Deputy Commissioner Robert Scott also served a significant stint as acting agency head between Alanis and Neeley.

The Perry administration is known for having tight control over education policy. What Neeley's three years at the agency show is that she worked hard to broker compromise between educators and the governor. Educators praised her for trying to bridge the gap between themselves and the governor. "As a veteran educator herself, Commissioner Neeley has tried to keep in touch with educators in the field who actually have to implement the policy edicts and inadequate budgets handed down from the governor and legislative leadership," said Linda Bridges, president of the Texas chapter of American Federation of Teachers, in a statement released just after Neeley's forced departure. "In the process, she has helped to round off some of the rough edges of those policies and make them more workable. We hope her successor will play a similar role."

Neeley, the longtime superintendent of Galena Park Independent School District – during her tenure, the state's largest school district with an exemplary rating – came in brash and bold, ready to take on policy. She was a Harley-riding schoolmarm, who was introduced, when she first took the job, as being "as handy with a cross-stitch needle as a branding iron." A lot of her initial boldness, however, melted away during her tenure under what many in the education community suppose was increased scrutiny from the Governor's Office.

Neeley is well-known for her saying that it's important "to keep the main thing the main thing." The main thing, in this case, was to follow Perry's line on issues, from private-school vouchers to financial accountability to high school curriculum.

Neeley's first three-year term expired in January. Most considered the warning flag to be up when Perry didn't offer her up for confirmation during the session. The Governor's Office would say little, except that it was looking for "new energy and new direction" in the job. That direction will not likely come from the ranks of current superintendents, who are leery of the current configuration of the agency, which makes the education commissioner a figurehead and places much of the authority with Scott, who has served as Perry's senior education policy adviser since 2001.

The school year starts in a matter of weeks, and the expectation is that Perry will name Scott to the helm of the agency while he searches for a new appointee for the 2009 session.

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