Ignoring Critics, State Boards Pursue New Schools Chiefs

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The state school boards in Ohio and Illinois are hoping to hire new state chiefs by late October, despite political pressure to wait until after November's gubernatorial elections.

With Ohio Superintendent John M. Goff retiring at the end of the year, board members there say they hope to pick a successor by Oct. 20, in order to allow ample time for the transition.

The members stood by their plan to move forward with their search for a superintendent even after Lee Fisher and Bob Taft, respectively the Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, asked them to delay the process. The candidates say the next governor should have an opportunity to help select the key administrator.

"This may be the most important appointment made in Ohio in many years," Mr. Fisher said in a written statement to the 19-member board, which is composed of a mix of elected and appointed members. "To rush to judgment on such an important issue seems ill-advised."

But by picking the next schools chief as planned, while giving both gubernatorial candidates the opportunity to offer input on the traits they would like to see in a superintendent, the board is hoping to find a middle ground between operating autonomously and collaborating with other state leaders, said board President Jeniffer L. Sheets.

"Everything in life is a balance," Ms. Sheets said. "We want to maintain an independent voice, yet we can't do that without the cooperation of other players."

Political Insulation

Nationally, 26 states have adopted systems in which state school board members, whether appointed by the governor or elected, have ultimate say over who becomes schools chief.

The process follows the administrative model of major corporations, with the board of education acting as a board of directors would in choosing a chief executive officer, said David Kysilko, the director of publications for the National Association of State Boards of Education in Alexandria, Va.

A board-chosen schools chief is likely to stay somewhat more insulated from the pressures and fluctuations of partisan politics than one who is elected by state voters or appointed by the governor, Mr. Kysilko said. He said that state superintendent turnover is higher among gubernatorial appointees than those appointed by state boards.

Regardless of the selection method, no state chief is safe from the occasional political fireball. In California, for example, Superintendent Delaine Eastin, a Democrat up for re-election this fall, has been engaged in a power struggle with Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, throughout her four-year term.

And former Illinois Superintendent Joseph A. Spagnolo Jr., who was appointed by the state board, announced plans to step down in July just weeks after several Republican lawmakers publicly recommended that his contract not be renewed following a state testing gaffe.

Today, the gubernatorially appointed Illinois school board is moving on the search for a successor, despite requests from outgoing Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Glenn Poshard, and several Democratic lawmakers to make a final decision after the next governor is selected. Republican gubernatorial candidate George Ryan, Illinois' secretary of state, has indicated that he supports the board's choice to follow its own timeline.

A Logistical Matter?

Illinois Sen. Vince T. Demuzio, a Democrat on the Senate education committee, noted that the board intends to announce the new schools chief on Oct. 22. He called the process a political "hoax."

"Why don't they wait another 12 days and discuss the matter with the new governor?" Mr. Demuzio said. "It seems to me that there is a plot to take care of this. They're attempting to hurry up the process before the acting governor leaves."

But Kim Knauer, the spokeswoman for the Illinois board, said the selection deadline was set as a matter of logistics.

"It takes three to five months to do a superintendent search, and in a perfect world that would happen by the end of October," Ms. Knauer said.

"This was all stirred up ... because the Democrats haven't had a governor in 22 years and would want the chance to have input," she added. "We would listen to anything the gubernatorial candidates or the governor would have to say about it. We know we don't live in a vacuum."

Most education officials agree that having a governor and a state schools chief agree on an education game plan can help advance reforms.

But in the end, Illinois and Ohio board members are best served by going ahead with the superintendent-selection process on their own terms, Mr. Kysilko of the NASBE argued.

"If you specifically wait for a new governor to be elected, it feeds the idea that it's a political appointee, rather than the best person to run the education system in the state," Mr. Kysilko said.

Vol. 18, Issue 1, Page 26

Published in Print: September 9, 1998, as Ignoring Critics, State Boards Pursue New Schools Chiefs
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