School & District Management

Four Incumbent State Chiefs Stave Off Challengers

By Mary Ann Zehr & Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — November 09, 2004 5 min read
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Terry Bergeson, who was handily re-elected to a third term as Washington state’s schools chief last week, says her mandate is pretty clear.

“We just have to keep working for the success of children, particularly children on the margins,” Ms. Bergeson said in an interview. “I know the ingredients of how you blow away that achievement gap: parental commitment, school commitment, and greater support and more resources to ... help teachers reach those children.”

While the Washington state superintendent’s race was the most closely watched nationally, incumbents swept races in three more of the five states electing schools chiefs this year. In the fifth state, North Carolina, the race for the only open chief’s seat remained too close to call at press time. In state school board elections, incumbents also fared well in most of the 12 states holding such contests last week.

‘Knock-Down’ Fight

In Washington state, Ms. Bergeson had been embroiled in what she describes as a “knock-down, drag-out contest” with Judith Billings, a former state superintendent, but won 56 percent of the vote Nov. 2.

Democrat Linda McCulloch, center, applauds during a Democratic party Tuesday night, Nov. 2, 2004, in Helena, Mont., after she won re-election to state superintendent of public instruction.

Ms. Bergeson, a former president of the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, won despite having failed to secure the endorsement of the union, which criticized her for supporting charter schools. Ms. Billings is against charter schools, and Washington voters last week sided with her when they decisively rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed the state’s recently passed charter law to take effect.

In the next four years, Ms. Bergeson said, she will work to temper the accountability requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which she describes as a “morale crusher” for its provision that labels schools as needing improvement. But she will continue to back the high school graduation test that students will be required to pass beginning in 2008, despite criticism from Ms. Billings and concern among many parents that the measure will lead to lower graduation rates.

To help allay those fears, Ms. Bergeson says she will continue to push acceptable alternative assessments for students with special needs.

Other Chiefs Also Win

North Dakota’s Wayne G. Sanstead won an unprecedented sixth term as state schools chief, receiving about 62 percent of the vote with most precincts reporting, to defeat high school principal Keith Jacobson in the nonpartisan contest.

Chief Elections

Voters in five states cast ballots for top education officials on Nov. 2. The winners are in bold.

State Candidate % of Vote
Indiana Suellen Reed (R)* State superintendent 56
Susan Williams (D) Executive director, Indiana State Office Building Commissioner 41

Montana Linda McCulloch (D)* State superintendent 57
Bob Anderson (R) Superintendent, Fort Benton public Schools 43

North Carolina June Atkinson (D) Director of instructional services, state education department 50
Bill Fletcher (R) Businessman, chairman of the Wake County school board 50
Too close to call

North Dakota** Wayne G. Sanstead* State superintendent 62
Keith Jacobson Principal, New Salem High School 38

Washington** Terry Bergeson* State superintendent 56
Judith Billings State Superintendent, 1989-97 44
**Nonpartisan election

Indiana’s Republican incumbent, Suellen Reed, gained a fourth term as state superintendent. Ms. Reed’s Democratic challenger, Susan Williams, had vowed that if elected, she would resign immediately to allow the governor to make an appointment to the post. Ms. Reed also supports making the schools chief’s post an appointed position, but only after the Indiana legislature decides to change the law.

“The main thing [the election results] tell us is that we’re heading in the right direction, and that continuity is important to getting Indiana [public schools] where they need to be,” Ms. Reed said in an interview last week.

In Montana, Democrat Linda McCulloch was re-elected to a second term as state chief over Republican Bob Anderson, the superintendent of the 340-student Fort Benton public schools.

Meanwhile, the superintendent’s race in North Carolina remained a dead heat with a difference of a few thousand votes between the candidates. Democrat June Atkinson, a former state education official, and Republican Bill Fletcher, a businessman and longtime school board member in Wake County, were vying for the seat vacated by Michael E. Ward, who resigned in August. A winner was expected to be determined this week.

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 deputy superintendent, who is hired by the board.

Evolution Debate Rekindled

In state board races, a Democrat who favors the inclusion of the theory of evolution in Kansas’ science standards and textbooks won re-election to the only contested position on the 10-member Kansas board of education. Bill Wagnon, a history professor at Washburn University in Topeka, received 51 percent of the vote for a third four-year term.

Kansas’ approach to science education has caused considerable state and national debate since the state board’s vote in 1999 to remove references to the theory of evolution from the state-approved science curriculum. In 2001, the board reversed that decision.

But Mr. Wagnon’s challenger, Robert L. Meissner, a Republican, had said he would consider adding requirements for students to learn alternative science theories such as “intelligent design,” according to news reports.

One new member of the Kansas board, Kathy Martin, will tip the balance of power on the board in favor of conservative Republicans over moderate Republicans and Democrats. Ms. Martin defeated incumbent Bruce Wyatt, a GOP moderate, in the August primary. What had been a 5-5 split between the two camps will now be a 6-4 split. Board members on both sides of the divide said they expected heated debates on the teaching of evolution to be replayed in the coming months.

In Utah, three of the four incumbents—Teresa L. Theurer, John C. Pingree, and Janet A. Cannon—on the 15-member state board who were up for re-election kept their seats.

State board elections were also held in Alabama, Colorado, Hawaii, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, and Washington state. Twenty-one of 25 incumbents whose positions were contested kept their seats on school boards. Three incumbents lost outright, and one is involved in a run-off election, according to an analysis by the National Association of State Boards of Education.

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