Mich. Picks Local Superintendent With Lobbying Background as Next State Chief

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 19, 2015 2 min read
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The Michigan Board of Education selected Brian Whiston, the superintendent of the state’s Dearborn public schools, to be its next chief state school officer. The board voted 7-1 on March 18 to pick Whiston as the replacement for state Superintendent Mike Flanagan, who will retire later this year after 10 years on the job.

Whiston has led the 19,000-student district since 2008. He previously worked as the director of government and community relations for the Oakland school district in Michigan. Whiston has also served on local school boards and taught university courses at Wayne State University, according to his profile at the Dearborn schools website.

Whiston, whose appointment will become official once his contract negotiations with the board are complete, beat out two other local superintendents who were finalists to replace Flanagan, who is the longest-serving state chief in the country. He indicated his eagerness to come up with changes to school finance, as well as consider other education policy changes.

Board members indicated that Whiston’s experience as a state lobbyist was an important consideration in their decision, since they want the next state superintendent to work well with a wide variety of individuals and audiences. At the same time, Whiston’s work as a lobbyist during his tenure at the Oakland schools also drew criticism—he had to defend what the Detroit Free Press described as “lavish” expenditures on dinners with lawmakers, and an investigation into the district’s finances led to the resignation of its then-superintendent in 2003. Whiston defended his expenses to the state board during interviews, saying what he spent wasn’t out of line with typical lobbying activity.

The state board’s relationship with Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has become strained recently. Snyder recently signed an executive order to transfer the state’s School Reform/Redesign Office from the Michigan education department to the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget. Since Snyder appoints the head of that agency, the move would likely give him more power over K-12 policy overhauls. (The Michigan state school board is independently elected.) In response, the state board said that Snyder’s move was a violation of the Michigan Constitution.

“Decisions affecting the educational environment, from school safety to effective learning environments and health and well-being, should be directed by those with expertise in effective education policy, not by individuals or government departments with no expertise in educating children,” the board said in its statement.

Photo: Dearborn Public Schools Superintendent Brian Whiston interviews for the Michigan State Superintendent of Public Instruction job in Lansing, Mich., on March 18. (Todd McInturf/The Detroit News)

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