Ohio

Eye on Education

The Search for a New State Schools Chief is On – Again

Ida Lieszkovszky / StateImpact Ohio

Stan Heffner and Debe Terhar sit next to each other at the State Board of Education meeting last summer that approved Heffner as the state's top education official.

Talk about a case of déjà vu.

The State Board of Education spent much of last summer searching for a new superintendent of public instruction.

It ultimately settled on then-interim superintendent Stan Heffner.

Heffner resigned last month after a report by the state inspector general detailed how he inappropriately lobbied for a private-testing firm last year. At the time, he was set to take a job with the company in Texas. The IG’s report said he also used state equipment, time, and employees to take care of his personal business as he prepared to move – and has been passed onto prosecutors.

Board President Debe Terhar says the board didn’t even get to consider the report, but she understands why Heffner resigned.

“He just felt that he was becoming, and these were his words, he was becoming a distraction to what we needed to be concentrating on with education,” Terhar says.

So, the Board is once again left to find a new state superintendent of public instruction.

Michael Sawyers, former debuty superintendent, is now acting superintendent of public instruction. He’s likely to become the interim superintendent following a board meeting on August 20th, though he’s not sure if he’s interested in becoming the permanent superintendent yet.

Some think Sawyers will not apply because of an incident from his previous job. When he was superintendent of Perry Local schools up in Lake County, he used a district credit card to charge more than 850 dollars worth of personal expenses like gas and food.

“It was a mistake on my part, I accept the responsibility,” says Sawyers. “I made restitution and ultimately disclosed it when I applied for a position at the Ohio Department of Education.”

It’s been a challenging year all around at the Department of Education.

  • The department’s budget was slashed and dozens of employees were laid off last summer.
  • The governor appointed a new board member this spring who had no college degree and for whom he could not produce a resume.
  • And the department is under investigation by the state auditor to see if it was involved in falsification of student attendance data at schools around the state.
  • Now it has to once again find someone to fill the state’s top education post.

“Now the question is, ‘How do we go about recruiting a new superintendent,’” says Mary Rose Oakar, a member of the Board of Education. “I think we should have a professional agency reach out and do a search for a new superintendent, not the executive committee.”

When Heffner was hired, the board did the search in-house to save money.

“We tried that once, we got very mediocre people with one or two exceptions, and I think we didn’t have a good range to choose from,” says Oakar.

“I think you need that. I don’t think anybody has the time really, or are qualified to go nationally about who you want to be superintendent. You want the best people to apply for what is the highest-ranking job in education in our state. I mean we’re a large state.”

–Mary Rose Oakar, member of the State Board of Education

Basically, she is asking for a headhunter, “because I think you need that. I don’t think anybody has the time really, or are qualified to go nationally about who you want to be superintendent. You want the best people to apply for what is the highest-ranking job in education in our state. I mean we’re a large state.”

An outside agency was used to find Heffner’s predecessor, Deb Delisle; it cost the department roughly 45,000 dollars.

Even with an outside company taking over the search, it could be months, even half-a-year before the state has a new superintendent.

“Certainly there’s a concern about continuity, and I’m a strong believer in having continuous leadership,” says Jack Conrath, the Superintendent in Residence in the Ohio State Unviersity College of Education and Human Ecology. Until Governor John Kasich engineered the early ouster of Delisle, Ohio’s state superintendents served for 10 to 14 years.

“That allows things to happen,” says Conrath.

Heffner may have held the position for just a year, but during that time, he passed several statewide education initiatives, including the third-grade reading guarantee. He also overhauled the way teachers are evaluated, and updated the way school districts are graded each year.

Conrath says the best thing the state school board can do is find a candidate that is on board with all those initiatives, and someone who can handle the pressures of a very public office and will stick around for at least a few years.

Note: An earlier version of this story attributed a quote from Michael Sawyers about his time at Perry Schools to former State Superintendent Stan Heffner. We apologize for the error. 

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