After Nearly Three Decades in Office, N.D. Schools Chief to Step Down

By Sean Cavanagh — February 17, 2012 2 min read
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Wayne Sanstead, a gregarious former government teacher and debate coach who has served as North Dakota’s state schools superintendent for nearly three decades, announced Friday he will not seek re-election.

Sanstead, 76, is the longest-serving state school superintendent in the country, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers.

He said he’s retiring from public service to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren, and to relax. After having won seven straight elections as superintendent, the self-described “prolific vote-getter” said he was confident he would have won an eighth term this fall, but decided against it.

In a phone interview, Sanstead offered a reporter “greetings from beautiful and bountiful North Dakota, where the sun is shining, even if I’m not running!”

“I had put together two news releases, one that read ‘yes’ I’m running, one that read ‘no,’” he told Education Week. “I found the real meaning in public life. The decision didn’t come lightly. But I think I’ve put in my time.”

North Dakota’s governor, Jack Dalrymple, is a Republican, and the state’s legislature is dominated by the GOP. Sanstead is a Democrat, though his office is officially nonpartisan.

The superintendent said he is most proud of his efforts to increase and equalize state funding across North Dakota’s schools, and the state’s progress in increasing student access to education through technology and other means. (See my colleague Kathleen Manzo’s exceptional 2005 profile of Sanstead, written as he faced political pushback over his proposals to speed up the consolidation of school districts and implement controversial teacher-quality provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act.)

Sanstead has served in public office for a total of 46 years. He was elected as a state representative in 1964, while working as a teacher in his hometown of Minot. He later served in the state senate, and in 1972 he was elected lieutenant governor. He continued to teach full-time in the classroom until 1979, when he became the state’s first full-time lieutenant governor, according to his biography. He has served as schools superintendent for 28 years.

All told, Sanstead was elected to office 16 times, and lost only once—in 1980, when he was lieutenant govenor, amid the Republican wave that brought Ronald Reagan to the White House.

“You can’t stand in front of a landslide,” he said. “I found that out firsthand.”

Photo: Sanstead, at right, talks to visiting U.S. Department of Education official Ana Garcia in Bismarck, in 2005. By Amy Taborsky.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.