School & District Management

Five States to Vote for Top School Officers

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — October 12, 2004 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 5 min read
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Corrected: Bill Fletcher, a candidate for state schools chief in North Carolina, was incorrectly identified in this story. Mr. Fletcher, a member of the Wake County school board since 1993, served as its chairman from 2000 to 2001.

It isn’t unusual for North Dakota residents to find Wayne Sanstead at the gas pump, filling up the tank of his 1991 Oldsmobile. Mr. Sanstead, 69, has put nearly 300,000 miles on that car, and another 130,000 on a second sedan, many of them racked up on long drives to the state’s remote school districts.

Many of North Dakota’s 630,000 residents, in fact, are more likely than ever to see him on his jaunts as he crisscrosses the state campaigning for a sixth consecutive term as the state superintendent.

Nationwide, five states will hold elections for the top education post on Nov. 2. The others are Indiana, Montana, North Carolina, and Washington state. A total of 14 states elect their schools chiefs.

Mr. Sanstead has been a fixture in the department of public instruction in Bismarck since he was elected to his first term in 1984. Before that, he spent eight years as a state senator, two years as a state representative, and another eight as lieutenant governor.

“There’s a lot of name identification there,” he said in a telephone interview. “But I’m working harder than ever. . . . I’m going to be going day and night.”

Chief Elections

Voters in five states will cast ballots for their top education officials when they go to the polls for the Nov. 2 general elections.


Suellen Reed (Republican), state superintendent (incumbent)

Susan Williams (Democrat), executive director of Indiana State Office Building Commission, former teacher


Linda McCulloch (Democrat), state superintendent (incumbent)

Bob Anderson (Republican), superintendent of Fort Benton public schools


June Atkinson (Democrat), director of instructional services, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction

Bill Fletcher (Republican), businessman, chairman of the Wake County school board


Wayne G. Sanstead, state superintendent (incumbent)

Keith Jacobson, principal, New Salem High School, New Salem, N.D. (outside Bismarck)


Terry Bergeson, state superintendent (incumbent)

Judith Billings, state superintendent, 1989-97, former teacher and principal

*Nonpartisan election

His challenger, high school principal Keith Jacobson, is hoping to draw voters away from the familiar candidate, promising to temper the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to fit the educational climate of the sparsely populated, predominantly rural state.

“Unfortunately, the incumbent state superintendent has dropped the ball for North Dakota,” Mr. Jacobson is quoted as saying in

his campaign literature. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Mr. Jacobson’s literature refers to criticism among North Dakota educators that Mr. Sanstead did not do enough to argue against some of the federal law’s provisions that do not mesh well with rural schools. For example, the law requires science and social studies teachers to meet certification requirements in each of the subjects they teach. The provision is seen as unrealistic for rural teachers, who tend to teach multiple subjects.

His critics have voiced disapproval over state testing provisions for students and teachers that go beyond the federal mandates. “It is not enough to just blame the federal government,” according to Mr. Jacobson.

‘Who You Know’

The North Dakota challenger’s sentiments resonate with Max Laird, who ran for the office but lost in the primaries for the nonpartisan post in June. Mr. Laird, a 25-year teaching veteran and former president of the state teachers’ union, had hoped to put more emphasis on state and local issues, such as student health, curriculum, and falling enrollment.

Mr. Laird said he promised his students at an alternative high school that he would not leave before the end of the school year. With little more than a week before the primary to travel the state, Mr. Laird said he had little hope of developing the same name recognition Mr. Sanstead has.

“In North Dakota, many people vote on who you know and who you like,” he said, conceding that Mr. Sanstead, has a clear edge over Jacobson on that measure. “He campaigns full time, year round, and he has for 38 years.”

Mr. Sanstead acknowledges that his public profile is an advantage, but argues that he has taken a hit for enforcing the federal law that President Bush signed more than 2½ years ago.

“I’ve taken some real lumps for the implementation of No Child. . . . I’m taking bullets for Bush,” he said. “But there’s an opportunity to use the law to good effect.

“I’m very confident,” he added, “that when the dust settles, I will be here again for another four.”

Chiefs’ Status Eyed

In Indiana, another longtime state chief is seeking another term in her state’s partisan election.

Suellen Reed, the Republican candidate, who is finishing up her fourth, four-year stint as the state’s top education official, will push for full-day kindergarten once the state’s budget can accommodate it, according to her campaign manager, Scott Minier.

Her Democratic opponent, Susan Williams, has all but guaranteed that she will not take up residence in the superintendent’s office even if she does win.

Ms. Williams, a former teacher and the executive director of the Indiana State Office Building Commission, has vowed to step down if she is elected to allow the governor to appoint a replacement. Like the current superintendent, Ms. Williams has called for making the state schools chief an appointee of the governor.

Ms. Reed has indicated she would take a different route to the same goal by instead waiting for public discussion and legislative action to prompt the change.

Elsewhere, a former state schools administrator is running for the top education post in North Carolina, battling a prominent businessman and local school board member in what some observers say is the most competitive superintendent’s race in the state in recent memory.

June Atkinson, a longtime educator who won a runoff for the Democratic nomination, will face Republican Bill Fletcher, who heads the school board for the 108,000-student Wake County public schools.

North Carolina’s state chief has had reduced statutory authority since the early 1990s, when the state board handed most of the oversight of the department of public instruction to the hired deputy superintendent. Over the past two terms, however, the state board delegated some authority to Michael E. Ward, who stepped down from the post in August.

Montana Challenge

In Montana, Democrat Linda McCulloch is running for a second term against Republican Bob Anderson, the superintendent of the 340-student Fort Benton public schools.

The incumbent, who is backed by the state affiliate of the National Education Association, intends to continue the state’s focus on improving reading, particularly among Native American children. Dropout prevention and cultural awareness programs will also be priorities for her administration, she said last week.

Her challenger is the principal of the district’s elementary school and the special education cooperative director for nine school systems in his region. He pledges to introduce “common sense” administrative reforms to encourage Montana’s 452 districts to work more efficiently to save money and adapt to declining enrollments.

And in Washington state, incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson is in a close race with Judith Billings, who held the post from 1989 to 1997. (“Education Issues Are Dominant Theme in Washington State,” this issue.)


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