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Former Art Teacher Leads Wisconsin Governor's COVID Response

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Scott Bauer

MADISON — The bureaucrat in charge of Wisconsin’s response to COVID-19 was an art teacher before rising through the ranks of the state Department of Health Services.

Stephanie Smiley serves as director of DHS’s Bureau of Communicable Diseases and interim administrator of the Division of Public Health. Yet, Smiley does not have degrees in medicine or science, a point state Sen. Steve Nass says should not be lost in Gov. Tony Evers’ constant mantra of “following the science” and relying on the experts in battling the coronavirus.

Smiley holds a Bachelor of Science in Art Teacher Education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A few years ago she did earn a Master of Arts in Homeland Security Studies from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif, according to a 2018 story in the Janesville Gazette. 

“Smiley has an important job—she directs the Bureau of Communicable Diseases at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services—but she’s also passionate about art,” the newspaper wrote of the Janesville resident.

Before she jumped into public health, Smiley taught art at a private art school, according to the article. But the job wasn’t “the best fit for her young family.”

She began at DHS around 2000 as an executive assistant, working her way up to communications director and into her role as head of the Bureau of Communicable Diseases.

What fully qualifies Smiley for the position? She and Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm have come under fire for their COVID-19 public health metrics and the use of those numbers to justify strict emergency orders. DHS did not return Empower Wisconsin’s request for comment.

In her position, Smiley “Promotes efforts to prevent and control communicable diseases among Wisconsin citizens; Implements surveillance, control, and prevention measures; assists local health departments, health care providers, and citizens to prevent and control the spread of communicable diseases; maintains a statewide surveillance system; assists in early identification and intervention of communicable diseases; and informs the public about ways to prevent and control communicable diseases.”

In a statement released Wednesday, Nass said Gov. Tony Evers and Palm need to answer serious questions “regarding the personnel at DHS serving in vital roles without appropriate education, training or experience.”

“Ms. Smiley leads the Communicable Diseases Bureau but has no education, training or experiences that would seem to make her qualified to serve in that role,” the Whitewater Republican said. “She is also serving as the overall Administrator for the Division of Public Health and clearly lacks any known basis for serving in that role, as well.”

The Janesville Gazette story notes that Smiley’s thesis was titled, “Finding the Path of Least Antibiotic Resistance through Agricultural Policy.” Perhaps that was helpful in her new role.

Nass has asked DHS to provide greater details regarding Ms. Smiley’s background and the job descriptions and requirements that the Evers Administration is using for these critical positions.

The Evers administration offered no explanation in May after DHS asked State Health Officer Jeanne Ayers to resign. Ayers, who was paid $62.51 an hour, was replaced by Smiley.

Ayers, at least, was a registered nurse and had a Masters in Public Health. She now serves as a senior adviser for VOTESAFE Public Health, a liberal-leaning organization that promotes “COVID-safe voting practices,” particularly vote-by-mail.

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