The state’s new acting education commissioner said Monday that he does not support teaching creationism in Maine schools, reversing a position he took when he ran for governor in 2010.

Gov. Paul LePage announced Bill Beardsley’s appointment late Friday to succeed acting commissioner Tom Desjardin, who will continue in the department as acting deputy commissioner.

During a lightning round of questions in a gubernatorial debate in 2010, Beardsley answered “yes” when asked whether he believed in creationism and thought it should be taught in schools.

On Monday, he said he doesn’t believe schools should teach creationism in science classes, and that he will not put forward any effort to change Maine’s current science standards to include creationism, the idea that the universe and life originated as a result of divine intervention.

“There’s a place for religion and a place for science,” Beardsley said. “Do I believe in science? Of course I believe in science. My mother was an astronomer. Am I a person of faith? Yes, I happen to be a person of faith.

“I keep my faith separate from my secular work,” he added.

He said the Maine Department of Education doesn’t independently determine what is taught in classrooms. The state sets standards, while local school districts select the curriculum used to teach those standards. The state, for example, does not dictate the books teachers use in the classroom.

A bill to update Maine’s science standards last year passed the Legislature, but LePage vetoed it. In his veto message, LePage said there was not enough funding to ask schools to review and update the science standards.

During the same debate in 2010, LePage also said he supported teaching creationism in schools.

Beardsley, a member of the State Board of Education since 2012, previously served as commissioner of the Department of Conservation from 2011 to 2012, when the agency merged with the Department of Agriculture, creating the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. He was president of Husson University from 1987 to 2010, and is credited with taking it from a small, struggling college to a Bangor institution.

Lois Kilby-Chesley, president of the Maine Education Association, which represents teachers, said she had not heard any teachers voice concerns about Beardsley’s stances on science, but she didn’t think creationism belonged in the classroom.

“Personal beliefs are not the same as scientific research,” she said. “There shouldn’t be crossover where personal beliefs become the curriculum.”

She said she looked forward to working with Beardsley.

“We’re hopeful that this appointment is going to give us a better chance to work collaboratively with the Department of Education,” she said.

DRAWN INTO SCANDAL

Beardsley also faced a challenge from Democratic legislators during his confirmation hearings in 2012 for the State Board of Education. The year before, the Rev. Bob Carlson, a former chaplain at Husson University while Beardsley was president, committed suicide after learning that Maine State Police were investigating allegations that he sexually abused several children over 40 years.

Beardsley was drawn into the scandal because he was named in a report published by the state police. In the 104-page report, Beardsley told investigators that he received two phone calls, one in 2005 and another in 2006, that suggested that Carlson had participated in a homosexual relationship. Beardsley told police that he confronted Carlson after the second caller in 2006 threatened to make the relationship public.

Beardsley told the Portland Press Herald in August 2012 that he told Carlson that if he had done anything wrong he shouldn’t be on campus, and that Carlson immediately resigned. Beardsley later acknowledged, when confronted with photographic evidence showing that Carlson continued to participate in activities at Husson, that he had not categorically banned him from campus.

On Monday, Beardsley repeated what he told the Legislature’s education committee in 2012: He had no knowledge of any illegal activity by Carlson.

Husson officials said during the committee hearings that they received no directive from Beardsley to ban Carlson from campus events. Beardsley said at the time that Carlson was not categorically banned because he didn’t know of any illegal activity.

Beardsley was eventually confirmed to the State Board of Education after a vigorous debate on the floor of the Senate and a party-line vote of 19-13.

“Until Rev. Carlson passed away, I had absolutely no knowledge of any inappropriate behavior with him and minors at Husson or anywhere else. That’s the fact. That’s the truth. I had zero knowledge,” he said Monday.

‘I’M NOT A CANDIDATE’

Beardsley said that as acting education commissioner, he would focus on continuing the work already underway at the Department of Education. Among the major issues are implementing new teacher-principal evaluation standards and moving toward proficiency-based graduation requirements for the Class of 2018. Beardsley said he did not have any plans to stay on as permanent commissioner, but that would be up to the governor.

“I’m not a candidate. I’m not applying for it. That’s the governor’s choice,” he said.

Beardsley earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Earlham College in 1964 and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University from the department of geography and environmental studies in 1970.

Beardsley said he does not have a specific “agenda” as acting commissioner, but several issues that have come up during his tenure on the State Board of Education intrigue him. The top one, he said, is finding ways to close the gap between poorly performing schools that tend to have lower-income students, and high-performing schools with higher-income students. He also would like to simplify teacher certification standards, bolster the state’s career and technical education centers, and find ways to attract and retain good teachers.

“I love education, and we’ve got a great staff here at the department. We don’t pass laws, we implement the laws of the Legislature. I want to have a good relationship with the Legislature,” he said.

Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, co-chairman of the education committee, said he has worked with Beardsley for years and lives down the street from him.

“My initial gut reaction is that (Beardsley) is a good choice because Bill has been a longtime member of the education community in Maine,” Langley said. “He’s got the credentials, and more importantly, he’s got a veteran crew and staff in the Department of Education. I’ve really grown to respect the work they do and how competent those folks are.”

Langley said he wasn’t worried about the questions about creationism because a commissioner cannot unilaterally decide an academic standard.

“The personal beliefs of the guy at the top don’t matter. There’s not a single person who says yes or no,” Langley said.

“There are a lot of things that have come onto the plate that really need to be implemented,” he said. “The most important thing is to complete the work that has already been initiated.”

Beardsley is the third acting commissioner under LePage. His first education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, stepped down in August 2013. Jim Rier was named acting commissioner, and later confirmed as commissioner, but took medical leave in November 2014 and later retired. Desjardin was named acting commissioner in April 2015.

After appointing an acting commissioner, the governor has six months before he must nominate a permanent commissioner, who must be confirmed by the Legislature.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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