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3 Finalists for Kentucky Commissioner's Job Chosen

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A search committee last week named three local schools superintendents as finalists for the post of Kentucky commissioner of education, which observers predict will be among the most closely watched education jobs in the nation.

The finalists are John A. Murphy of Prince George's County, Md.; William J. Leary of Gloucester, Mass.; and Thomas C. Boysen of San Diego County, Calif.

A decision about who actually gets the position is expected late this week.

The three were chosen from more than 120 applicants nationwide, according to William E. McAnulty Jr., a lawyer who heads the Education Management Selection Commission. The six-member group was appointed by Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson and state legislators to oversee the job search.

The new chief will be responsible for carrying out the state's landmark education-reform law, which has been widely hailed as the most radical plan for restructuring a state school system in the nation.

The law, passed by the legislature last spring in response to the Kentucky Supreme Court's decision declaring the state's entire school system unconstitutional, revises the school-funding mechanism to close the gap between rich and poor districts. It also calls for the creation of a system of rewards and sanctions for schools based on their performance, and provides for the development of new techniques to assess student achievement.

In addition, the law dramatically alters the power of local school boards and mandates the creation of site-based management teams in every district.

As part of the law, the elective position of state superintendent of education was stripped of most of its responsibilities and reduced to a $3,000 salary. Most of its duties will now be carried out by the newly created state commissioner of education, a gubernatorially appointed position.

The search committee has been "looking for a visionary" to guide the state through the risky implementation process, said Mr. McAnulty, a former juvenile-court judge in Jefferson County, Ky.

"The universal advice was to make sure we had someone who could sell the reform and keep the spirit alive and make sure it just didn't die on the vine," he recalled.

The new commissioner also needed to be "versatile enough to deal with the legislature, the governor, and the various interest groups involved," Mr. McAnulty noted. "We kept hearing the phrase, 'and by the way, be able to walk on water."'

Although none of the three finalists possesses supernatural powers, each has extensive experience in leading large organizations through the process of change.

Mr. Murphy, probably the best-known and most controversial of the three, is now in his second term as superintendent of the nation's 16th-largest school district.

During his tenure, the Prince George's system has witnessed dramatic improvements in student test scores, in part because of a stringent new accountability system that he instituted. The majority-black school district has also garnered national attention for creating one of the most extensive magnet-school programs in the country and for its aggressive efforts to recruit new teachers.

Mr. Leary became superintendent of schools in Gloucester in 1989, after serving for four years as superintendent of the Broward County, Fla., public schools--the ninth-largest district in the country. Between 1972 and 1975, he served as superintendent of the Boston school system, during the tumultuous first phase of that city's desegregation plan.

Mr. Boysen of San Diego has been a school superintendent for 20 years in Washington State, New York, and California. During the past eight years, he has played a major role in shaping California's school-reform efforts. From 1983 to 1986, he chaired the state's task force on accountability and assessment.

Jack Foster, secretary of education and humanities in Kentucky and a member of the search committee, said the state was looking for individuals who had some experience in carrying out reform proposals similar to those called for in the new law.

"We didn't want somebody who was a late convert, who would tell us they believed in all these things because they wanted the job," he said. "We wanted people who already had experience in things like site-based management and, of course, that narrowed the field very quickly.''

The grueling, four-month search began in August, when the selection panel hired a private executive-recruitment firm, Heidrick and Struggles of Chicago, to help manage the application process. In addition to advertising nationwide, the firm was encouraged to solicit nominations for promising candidates.

In early October, that list was narrowed to 15 semifinalists, 14 of whom were interviewed by the search committee after one withdrew. Although several of the individuals had previously worked in Kentucky, that was not a factor in the selection process, Mr. McAnulty explained. "We were mandated to undertake a national search," he said.

The search committee is scheduled to meet Nov. 16 to make a final decision. The law requires that the selection be approved by a unanimous vote of the panel. Although the commissioner's salary is still being negotiated, Mr. McAnulty predicted that it will be in excess of $100,000 a year.

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