An attachment listed 68 jobs that could be affected, including positions in finance, acquisitions, budget, ethics, human resources, privacy and planning.
Some people, inside and outside the agency, see the move as an effort to undermine career staff. Others say shifting senior executives can be healthy for the individuals and for the department.
The memo, sent Aug. 6, said the move was grounded in an executive order by President Barack Obama that directed an increase in the number of reassignments.
“We must continually look for ways to broaden our perspectives and sharpen our skills to meet the demanding requirements of the SES,” referring to the Senior Executive Service, wrote A. Bianca Green, chief human capital officer at the Education Department. She said reassignment notices would be made by Sept. 24 with new assignments expected to take effect by Oct. 14.
Green’s job was listed as one of those affected by the potential reassignment.
Two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal discussions, said that career executives at the department fear these decisions are being made without sufficient rationale, and said the disruption is creating turmoil and possibly pushing people to leave the agency.
Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hill said that, until recently, senior executives at the agency had never been rotated to new positions, even though the program was designed to move people within departments or to other agencies.
“Rotations provide an important opportunity to move talented executives into positions that utilize their skill sets in order to better serve students and to ensure the needs of the department are being met,” she said.
Outside experts said problems could arise if the agency does not have a strong rationale or effectively communicates its goals.
If the objective is to punish career staff, that’s a problem, said Jeffrey Neal, an expert in workforce issues who is a senior vice president for ICF, a consulting firm. He said that it would also be a problem if a large number of workers receiving the Education Department memo were reassigned at once.
“There’s a lot of disruption when you reassign people on a large scale,” he said.
Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association, a professional membership association, said he had never seen such a sweeping directive in his nine years on the association’s board or during 20 years of work at the Energy Department.
He said the key question is whether the Education Department is managing the process thoughtfully and making decisions that will improve its work. He also said reassignments can be positive and that executives should be prepared for them, given that the Senior Executive Service was created to house a flexible group of leaders.
“They are supposed to have the leadership skills needed for any challenge,” he said.
The Education Department has come under scrutiny for personnel issues before, including earlier this year, when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos shuffled several career executives. At the time, a spokeswoman said DeVos had spent her first year assessing the staff and rotated senior executives according to the department’s needs.
The Interior Department also faced questions after 27 senior executives — about 12 percent of the agency’s total — were reassigned. In April, the Interior inspector general’s office said it could not determine whether those moves were unlawful because top agency officials had failed to document how they reached their decisions.