Teaching Profession

State-Chief Turnovers Squeezing Talent Pool

By Christina A. Samuels — August 08, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 4 min read
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Corrected: In a previous version of this story, one of the two states mentioned that elects its state superintendent was misidentified. The two states are Indiana and Montana.

A high turnover among top state school officers nationwide is posing a challenge for recruiters seeking people with the right mix of educational acumen and political savvy to fill the vacant or soon-to-be-vacant spots.

This year, nine state schools chiefs have left their posts or have announced their intent to step down, whether because of retirement, political pressures, or simply a desire to move on. (“Chiefs’ Turnover Poses a Leadership Challenge,” June 18, 2008.)

In one state, Virginia, the vacancy was filled quickly. Two states, Indiana and Montana, elect their state superintendents, and in Delaware, schools chief Valerie A. Woodruff, a member of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s Cabinet, will leave at the end of Ms. Minner’s term in January 2009. The Democratic governor’s successor would appoint the new chief.

But five states are searching for new education leaders as the opening of school approaches and at a time when state chiefs are being asked to shoulder more responsibility for student achievement—including blame if it falls short.

Brenda L. Welburn, the chief executive officer of the National Association of State Boards of Education, in Alexandria, Va., said that having several similar positions open at once can make it harder to find enough qualified candidates, particularly if the searches are taking place in the same geographical region.

Ms. Welburn’s organization, known as NASBE, is working with the Nebraska state board of education to find a replacement for Douglas D. Christensen, a 14-year-veteran who resignation as commissioner of education coincided with the implementation of a statewide testing plan that would replace locally controlled tests. Mr. Christensen has long opposed statewide tests. (“Nebraska Education Sees Policy, Leadership Shifts,” April 30, 2008.)

NASBE also put in a bid to help Ohio in its search for a schools chief to replace Susan Tave Zelman, but the association was passed over in favor of a firm based in that state. Ms. Welburn acknowledged that she felt some relief at being turned down.

“We thought, ‘Good,’ ” she said. “Trying to do two searches in the middle of the country would be difficult.”

High Mobility

Gone or Exiting

Delaware: Valerie Woodruff, a member of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s (D) Cabinet, will step down after 9 years when the Democratic governor leaves in January. The new governor will appoint a secretary of education, who is then confirmed by the state legislature.

Indiana: Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen K. Reed, first elected in 1993, announced that she is not running for re-election and will leave her position in 2009 to join a firm that helps school districts finance major projects.

Montana: Linda McCulloch, elected superintendent of public instruction in 2001, will leave the position in January because of term-limit restrictions.

Nebraska: Douglas D. Christensen left the position he had held for 14 years this summer as the state ushered in a new state assessment, which he opposed. The state is conducting a nationwide search for a replacement.

Ohio: Susan Tave Zelman announced in May that she would be leaving the position she has held since 1999 at the end of this calendar year. The state board of education has begun a nationwide search for a replacement.

Rhode Island: Peter J. McWalters will leave in June 2009 after 17 years as commissioner of elementary and secondary education. A 14-member search committee will find his replacement.

South Dakota: Rick Melmer, the secretary of education since 2003 and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, will step down in November to become dean of the school of education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. The governor is currently searching for a replacement to appoint to the position.

Vermont: Richard H. Cate, the commissioner of education, stepped down after 4½ years to become interim chief financial officer at the University of Vermont. During his tenure, the state legislature tried unsuccessfully to turn the position from one appointed by the board of education to a Cabinet-level position appointed by the governor. The state is conducting a nationwide search for a replacement.

Virginia: Superintendent of Public Instruction Billy K. Cannaday Jr. is stepping down Sept. 30 to become dean of the University of Virginia’s school of continuing and professional studies. Patricia I. Wright, currently chief deputy superintendent, will take over the position effective Oct. 1.

SOURCE: Education Week

While routine retirements, coupled with political tensions, may be a factor in some of the vacancies, Ms. Welburn said state superintendents and commissioners of education also seem more likely to move around than they once did. “They’re not staying for extended periods of time,” she said.

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, also said transitions of state chiefs have gone up slightly in recent years, though he could not quantify the shift.

Some recruiters have voiced concern that the pool of candidates “was not as large as they thought it might be,” said Mr. Wilhoit, a former state chief in Arkansas and Kentucky.

Sometimes an internal candidate proves the best choice.

Billy Cannaday Jr., the superintendent of public instruction in Virginia, announced July 18 that he was planning to become the dean of the University of Virginia’s school of continuing and professional studies.

Less than a week later, Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, appointed Mr. Cannaday’s successor: Patricia I. Wright, currently the chief deputy superintendent. Her appointment is effective Oct. 1.

Gov. Kaine cannot succeed himself, and the state will elect his successor in 2009.

Cast a Wide Net

States conducting nationwide searches for school leaders are generally in the early stages.

In Ohio, the search firm Hudepohl & Associates has an additional challenge, in that state budget constraints prevent the state from advertising in state newspapers, though the firm is advertising in national publications, including Education Week. The state board of education sent out a press release to news organizations in July asking them to help spread the word on the state’s recruitment efforts.

Hudepohl & Associates, based in Worthington, Ohio, has conducted 50 “stakeholder” interviews with groups that would be expected to work closely with the Ohio state superintendent, such as teachers’ unions, legislative leaders, and the state’s association of district school boards.

“It’s always a war for talent, regardless of the condition of the economy or other searches going on,” said Gary Hudepohl, the managing director and principal of the search firm. “It’s always challenging.”

Rhode Island, which is losing schools chief Peter J. McWalters after 17 years, is also in the early stages of searching for a person to step into that role when he leaves in June 2009.

Instead of using a search firm, the state has named a 14-member committee to review applications and recommend finalists to the state board of education. (One of the search committee members is Ronald A. Wolk, the founding editor of Education Week.)

The Rhode Island state board plans to select a new commissioner by next March.

Vermont is asking for applications to be turned in by October to replace former Commissioner of Education Richard H. Cate, who stepped down to become the interim vice president for finance and administration at the University of Vermont.

Nancy R. Noeske, the president and chief executive officer of the firm Proact Search Inc. in Milwaukee, said it has always been a challenge to develop a pool of good candidates.

“Every search is challenging,” said Ms. Noeske, whose firm handled the search in 2007 that led to the hiring of Eric J. Smith as Florida’s commissioner of education. “You can’t expect to put an ad in and people will come to you. You have to go to them.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 13, 2008 edition of Education Week as State-Chief Turnovers Squeezing Talent Pool


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