Education chief quits unexpectedly; Departure of state’s 4th commissioner since ’99 follows legislative battle

By Pete Slover and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

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Felipe Alanis, the state’s first Hispanic education commissioner, resigned unexpectedly Friday afternoon, the latest to leave what has suddenly become one of state government’s hottest seats.

His replacement, when named by Gov. Rick Perry, will be the fourth person to serve as commissioner since 1999. Texas had had only six education commissioners in the previous 50 years.

Dr. Alanis, 54, has been commissioner since April 2002. He led the state through a dizzying set of changes: a new state test, the development of a new school ratings system, and the myriad requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

But his efforts to protect education spending from the state’s budget ax put him in a difficult position during the state’s recent budget crisis.

“I can tell you that being the commissioner of education for the state of Texas, being one of the showcase states in the nation in the area of accountability, is a very, very tough job and certainly takes its toll on anyone,” said Brock Gregg, governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Dr. Alanis resisted more than $2 billion in education cuts approved by state lawmakers in the just-ended session.

Lawmakers bristled privately after he testified in committee that the schools could be left without enough money to achieve basic accreditation standards – especially in light of demands imposed by the new, tougher Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test.

One lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said Dr. Alanis “had a very difficult time” in dealing with the Legislature on budget issues.

“One could call him overly rigid,” said another source, a professed fan of the commissioner’s who is close to the educational budgeting process. “One could call him principled.”

A spokesman for the governor denied speculation that Dr. Alanis was forced out over his performance on budget matters. “Absolutely not. The governor was pleased with his performance,” said Perry spokeswoman Kathy Walt.

Perry praises work

In a written statement, Mr. Perry had nothing but praise for the outgoing commissioner, hailing him for helping to implement federal accountability standards that helped insure $3.3 billion in federal education funds.

Johnny Veselka, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators, said Dr. Alanis gave no reasons for the resignation when the two men spoke Friday afternoon. But he said the funding battles over the last few months had been bruising.

“There’s no question that this was a very difficult and challenging legislative session,” he said. “For everyone, but particularly for those of us in public education.”

Dr. Veselka said he hopes Dr. Alanis’ replacement will have a longer stay than his or her predecessors. “I think it’s difficult for the public schools when there is rapid turnover in a position of leadership,” he said.

Before becoming commissioner, Dr. Alanis had experience at TEA, having served as deputy commissioner for programs and instruction from 1995 to 1999. In that role, he was in charge of curriculum and testing issues. He was a finalist for the commissioner’s job in 1999, but then-Gov. George W. Bush selected Dallas lawyer Jim Nelson instead.

His first job in education was as a teacher at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School near the Mexico border. He was later a deputy superintendent of the Ector County schools and superintendent in San Benito.

From 1999 to 2002, he served as assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs in the University of Texas System, overseeing a project to strengthen the UT campuses’ role in teacher training.

Mr. Perry appointed Dr. Alanis last year to fill the remaining eight months of Mr. Nelson’s four-year term. Dr. Alanis, who is paid about $165,000 annually, had been serving without a formal reappointment since January.

A degree of calm

Chase Untermeyer, a former State Board of Education member who left office in December, said Dr. Alanis brought a degree of calm to the board, on which he serves as executive secretary. The board had been known for rancorous disputes between conservative and moderate forces through much of the 1990s.

“He had a very cordial relationship,” Mr. Untermeyer said. “There was a degree of hostility between certain members of the board and the previous two commissioners. That vanished during Felipe’s time.”

In an e-mail letter to agency employees, Dr. Alanis said he had “mixed emotions” about resigning. “I am a better person leaving this agency, smarter and enriched beyond words,” he wrote.

Dr. Alanis did not say what he would be doing next but wrote that he would “remain active in educational endeavors.”

Mr. Untermeyer said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Dr. Alanis return to his superintendent roots.

“I guess what I was expecting was that he would be hired away by a major city school district,” he said.

Staff writer Scott Parks contributed to this report.