State’s schools chief resigns

CONCORD – Education Commissioner Nicholas Donohue abruptly ended any speculation about his desire to stay on the job Monday, announcing his plans to resign at the beginning of next month.

Donohue insisted the decision to step aside was his own and not that of Gov.-elect John Lynch.

Donohue re-evaluated his own future within state government after the Executive Council last Wednesday rejected Gov. Craig Benson’s choice to replace him with Newfound Regional Superintendent of Schools John Graziano, he said.

“This wasn’t about Craig Benson, it wasn’t about John Graziano, it wasn’t about John Lynch. This was about wanting and needing to do something new,’’ Donohue said during a telephone interview.

“I’ve enjoyed it, but I’m glad to be clear about what I want.”

Donohue’s last day on the job is Jan. 6, the same day Lynch takes the oath of office as governor. Lynch never said whether he would have named Donohue to another four-year term.

Last week, Lynch had told a Keene newspaper reporter that “everything’s open’’ on who would be his choice.

“I think my prospects were OK with John; we didn’t get that far,’’ Donohue said of his discussions with Lynch about the future.

For his part, Lynch said Monday he only learned that Donohue was stepping down moments before speaking with reporters about his meetings with Wall Street bond analysts.

“Nick has been a good public servant for this state. He has worked hard and has been very committed and compassionate in his work on education,’’ Lynch said.

“I wish him well in anything he wishes to do going forward.’’

In a statement, Benson urged Lynch and the next commissioner to continue working on allowing students to get credit for “real world’’ learning, to more appropriately spend money on students with special needs and to use federal money to create more charter schools.

“I hope the next administrations of the Department of Education and the governor’s office continue to be open to these new concepts,’’ Benson said.

The state Board of Education had unanimously recommended last month that Donohue should get a second term.

Benson has named six of the board’s seven members.

“I don’t think the state could have a better board than it now has. It’s a pretty good group of people,’’ Donohue said.

The all-volunteer board used to have the exclusive authority to name the schools chief. The Legislature took it away with a 2003 law in part due to skirmishes between Donohue and influential Republican lawmakers.

In early 2003, Benson had tried to use federal No Child Left Behind Act grants to cover $15 million in state expenses.

Donohue upset legislative budget writers by giving conflicting messages on how much of that federal money could be spent elsewhere in the state budget.

Ultimately, the final, two-year budget included less than $2 million of the education funds and Bush administration officials have since raised concerns about that use.

Donohue said the biggest challenge for policy-makers would be to pursue reforms that will be costly for a state that has a good record on school performance.

“I think the biggest challenge is really a larger decision by our statewide community about taking seriously the value of education and how it can and will help move us forward as a state,’’ Donohue said

“We have yet walked through the door to decide we will do anything necessary to have the best system in the world.’’

Despite those remarks, Donohue stressed he’s upbeat about the state’s education future and pleased Lynch will place a renewed focus on the subject.

“I think the state is in good hands, and the department is in good hands,’’ Donohue said.

Donohue, a Concord resident, said he’s got no job offers lined up and is looking forward to an extended holiday period with his family.

There should be no shortage of names for a replacement coming from Lynch, who had the endorsement of the National Education Association of New Hampshire teachers union along with support of many local school board members across the state.