School & District Management

States Wrestle With Departure of Top School Officials

By Jessica L. Tonn — January 29, 2007 4 min read
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It may not qualify as a mass exit—at least not yet—but six state boards of education are scrambling to find new schools chiefs after a recent spate of retirements, job changes, and resignations.

Looked at another way, one-quarter of the 24 states with board-appointed commissioners or superintendents—Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Massachusetts—are in the market for new education leaders. Connecticut’s board wrapped up its search for a commissioner earlier this month.

“It’s a huge amount of turnover in a small cadre of individuals,” said Brenda L. Welburn, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of State Boards of Education, referring to the 50 education chiefs.

But others are not surprised.

“In the general scheme of things, it might be high for one time,” said Scott Montgomery, a co-chief operating officer of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers. But he said the months after elections typically are a prime time for turnover in state government.

Mr. Montgomery pointed to a survey on chiefs’ tenures conducted by his organization in 2004 showing that 10 appointed chiefs had started within the first year and a half after the 2002 elections.

The turnover in 2003 and 2004, he wrote in an e-mail last week, “makes the current number of vacancies look about ‘normal.’ ”

Two of the current vacancies do appear to be election-related. Bob Corkins, Kansas’ politically conservative commissioner, resigned after moderates who opposed his appointment gained a majority on the state board. In Illinois, Randy J. Dunn, whose contract would have expired at the end of this month because of a state law preventing the superintendent from serving longer than the incumbent governor’s term, left in December to become the president of Murray State University in Murray, Ky.

Of the four remaining, three are retiring, and one accepted a position elsewhere.

Generational Turnover?

Ms. Welburn, whose organization is assisting state officials in the search for candidates in Kansas and Massachusetts, thinks that a factor other than politics may be at work: Many in the education community—both teachers and administrators—belong to the baby boom generation, she noted, which is reaching retirement age.

Vacancies at the Top

Because of retirements, job changes, and resignations, six states are searching for chief state school officers.

John Winn

FLORIDA
John Winn
Age: 58
Résumé: State education commissioner since 2004. Served as chief of staff to his predecessor, Jim Horne, and held other positions in the state education department since 1984. Former teacher.
Last day: Feb. 28, 2007
Reason for leaving: Retiring

Randy J. Dunn

ILLINOIS
Randy J. Dunn
Age: 48
Résumé: Appointed state superintendent in 2005. Former teacher, principal, and district superintendent.
Last day: Dec. 1, 2006
Reason for leaving: Appointed president of Murray State University in Murray, Ky.

Bob Corkins

KANSAS
Bob Corkins
Age: 46
Résumé: Appointed commissioner of education in 2005. Former executive director of Kansas Legislative Education and Research Inc. and the Freestate Center for Library Studies, nonprofit organizations that promote reduced taxes, limited government, and more efficient school spending.
Last day: Nov. 22, 2006
Reason for leaving: Resigned after moderates who opposed his appointment regained a majority on the state board of education.

Gene Wilhoit

KENTUCKY
Gene Wilhoit
Age: 63
Résumé: Appointed education commissioner in 2000. Served as Arkansas’ commissioner from 1993 to 1997; executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, 1986-1993; and deputy director of NASBE, 1983-1986. Former teacher and district administrator.
Last Day: Nov. 1, 2006
Reason for leaving: Appointed executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Cecil J. Picard

LOUISIANA
Cecil J. Picard
Age: 68
Résumé: State superintendent since 1996. Served in the state legislature for 20 years. Former teacher, coach, and principal.
Last day: May 1, 2007
Reason for leaving: Resigned for health reasons.

David R. Driscoll

MASSACHUSETTS
David P. Driscoll
Age: 65
Résumé: State education commissioner since 1999. Former teacher and district superintendent.
Last day: Aug. 31, 2007
Reason for leaving: Retiring

Source: Education Week

“There are a lot of us who have been around a long time,” she said.

Could that graying population make searches more difficult?

“The candidate pool [for this position] has been very shallow,” said William J. Attea, the managing principal of Hazard, Young, Attea, & Associates, the Glenview, Ill.-based firm that is conducting the search for Illinois’ superintendent. “Most of the people that are of good quality are people that we have actively pursued.”

Since most, if not all, states conduct national searches, boards usually turn to NASBE and major school-executive search firms that have connections with education leaders across the country—including some who may not otherwise have applied.

“It’s not just about advertising,” according to Gary Ray, the president of Ray and Associates Inc., the Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based firm working on the Kentucky position.

Some board members have seen the consequences of going it alone.

“It was a lot of work, especially for our staff,” Allan B. Taylor, the chairman of Connecticut’s board, said of the 2003 search the board conducted. As a result, he said, “we didn’t attract very highly qualified candidates from outside the state.”

Bill Wagnon, the newly appointed chairman of the Kansas board, has similar sentiments about the search he was a part of in 2004.

“The leadership of the board [at the time] really thought they could conduct this on their own, and the results show that,” he said.

The Kansas board was harshly criticized by educators and others in the state for hiring Mr. Corkins, who had no experience as a school administrator. He was appointed by a 6-4 vote and resigned after a year on the job.

But Mr. Ray predicted that more states could be turning to individuals such as Mr. Corkins in the future.

“There’s obviously a shortage of traditional educators, … which is one of the reasons that groups look to nontraditional candidates,” he said.

When it comes to nontraditional candidates, board members say they are open to the idea if the right person comes along.

Jesse H. Ruiz, the chairman of the Illinois board, said that his board has agreed that a candidate needs a certain amount of knowledge about the education system to be successful, but is willing to consider individuals with diverse backgrounds.

Higher District Pay

But attracting some top-notch candidates, both within and outside the education community, could be difficult because the salaries that boards can offer often aren’t competitive with the pay for other top education jobs. Board members acknowledge that local superintendents in their states often earn significantly more than the state education chief.

For example, Betty J. Sternberg went from earning $151,000 as Connecticut’s state commissioner to earning $210,000 when she became the superintendent of the 9,000-student Greenwich, Conn., public school system last summer. She could also earn an additional $110,000 in annuity, bonuses, and other benefits this school year.

“It’s not just that they’re offering $10,000 to $20,000 more—it’s significant,” said Ms. Welburn.

Despite such challenges, Mr. Ray and others are optimistic that states will have high-caliber candidates from which to choose.

“In Kentucky, this is looked on as a position of high integrity,” he said of the commissioner’s job.

“I don’t think that salary will be a deterrent, even for someone who has a competitive salary as a local superintendent,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as States Wrestle With Departure of Top School Officials

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