The seven new members of the Illinois board of education granted embattled state Superintendent Robert E. Schiller a leave of absence last week and initiated negotiations to buy out his contract.
The board also appointed an interim superintendent during its first meeting since the seven appointees of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich assumed their seats on the nine-member panel early last week.
Gov. Blagojevich has hammered Mr. Schiller and the state education agency for what he contends is mismanagement, including a tongue-lashing during the governor’s State of the State Address in January. The governor, a Democrat elected in 2002, has also called for more gubernatorial power over education policy. ( “Illinois Governor’s Reform Plan in Jeopardy,” May 26, 2004.)
Mr. Schiller, in a Sept. 20 letter that requested a leave of absence through Sept. 30, told the board he would be reviewing his goals and options. “I may offer my resignation at that time and would like this board to have the opportunity to anticipate the need to prepare for this event,” he wrote.
But the board, which oversees the state’s $8 billion education budget and sets education policy, appears to have made a decision. On Sept. 20, it voted 7-2 to authorize a buyout of up to $160,000 for Mr. Schiller’s contract, two years before it is supposed to expire. The dissenting votes came from the two members who had held their seats before the restructuring that led to the governor’s appointments.
Randy J. Dunn, an education professor at Southern Illinois University and the top choice of Gov. Blagojevich, will at least temporarily take the helm of the education agency as interim state schools chief. Last week it appeared that Mr. Dunn, a former 4th grade teacher and elementary school principal, would remain as superintendent if Mr. Schiller is fired or resigns.
The seven new board members still have to be confirmed by the Illinois Senate, but state law allowed them to begin their duties immediately. Last week they also held their first meeting to lay out a new agenda.
Last spring, the legislature approved a restructuring that allowed the governor to appoint four new board members, in addition to filling three seats that were vacated this year, but it rejected a bill that would have allowed the governor to appoint all nine members immediately.
Gov. Blagojevich has ordered the new board members to focus on four goals:
• Streamline the teacher-certification process and reduce the backlog of applications for certification;
• Work with districts to reduce bureaucratic state rules and regulations;
• Work with schools to help them save money; and
• Devise innovative strategies to help improve state education programs.
Jesse Ruiz, the new state board chairman, called it a “new day” for Illinois education at a Sept. 20 press conference at which Mr. Dunn was introduced as interim superintendent. “We are proceeding as a unified team,” he said two days later at the board meeting.
Gail Purkey, the spokeswoman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, said the union was pleased with the change, and she predicted that the new board would have a better handle on day-to-day needs of schools.
She added that the former board members took a more business-oriented approach to education issues and did not have the hands-on classroom experience needed to make education policy. One of the new members, Ed Geppert, retired as the union’s chief of staff earlier this year.
The new board members “have unsurpassed knowledge of the issues that public education has to deal with,” said Ms. Purkey, whose union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
Gov. Blagojevich stunned onlookers during his State of the State speech when he described the state education agency as “a Soviet-style bureaucracy” and called for replacing the board with a Cabinet-level education department that would answer to the governor.
But the constitutionality of his plan was questioned by lawmakers, and eventually the legislature passed a compromise bill, SB 3000, that gave the governor more power to appoint new members to the board, but left the board independent of the governor’s office.
Gov. Blagojevich signed the legislation this month.
Mr. Schiller, in his letter to the board, said he planned to spend his leave time in Florida at a house he owns that was severely damaged by Hurricane Frances, in addition to tending to other personal matters. He was not available for comment last week.
Ronald J. Gidwitz, one of the replaced board members, said that the compromise legislation that led to his replacement was “a good law, in that it keeps the state board of education constitutionally independent.” Mr. Gidwitz was appointed by former Gov. George H. Ryan, a Republican.
In an interview last week, Mr. Gidwitz said the new board would face the formidable tasks of persuading the legislature to budget more money for education and of finding ways to improve underperforming schools. Further, he said, Gov. Blagojevich had not had any contact with the board in recent months, which in turn led to a breakdown in relations between the board and lawmakers.
“In my view, the governor has been part of the problem; maybe now he’ll be part of the solution,” said Mr. Gidwitz, who is also the president of Students First, a nonpartisan grassroots school advocacy group. “He doesn’t have the excuse of a board he didn’t appoint and a superintendent he doesn’t prefer.”