Two men from rural Alaska are in the running to become Alaska’s next commissioner of education, but regardless of who wins the role, he’s in for some long hours.
On Wednesday, the State Board of Education and Early Development will interview Stewart McDonald of Kodiak and Michael Johnson of Glennallen for the state’s top schools job.
Each is vying to replace Michael Hanley, who was appointed under Gov. Sean Parnell and served until February, when he left the position following the failure of the state’s Alaska Measures of Progress standardized test. Hanley was the architect of that test, which was developed over three years and created specifically for Alaska needs.
“There’s a great deal of work that I think awaits the next commissioner,” said Lon Garrison, coordinator for school improvement for the Association of Alaska School Boards.
The test isn’t the only thing on the agenda, however.
“We have some other issues that really need to be addressed,” added interim education commissioner Susan McCauley.
McCauley had been a candidate to replace Hanley, but last week announced that she was withdrawing her application.
“After 26 years of prioritizing my career, I’m going to start prioritizing my family,” she said by phone on June 8.
Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District superintendent Robert Boyle likewise was a candidate but pulled out of the running in May.
“I’ve got some projects that I’d like to see finished,” Boyle told Megan Petersen of the Ketchikan Daily News in early May. “My heart wasn’t in it to go.”
McCauley’s announcement that she was giving up her application came shortly after Juneau’s legislative delegation sent a letter to Gov. Bill Walker expressing concerns that a commissioner candidate was considering moving department staff from Juneau to Anchorage.
McCauley was the only one of the three candidates with significant ties to Anchorage or the Mat-Su.
Asked whether she intended to move jobs from Juneau, she responded, “Absolutely not.”
“There has been no conversation among board members as a board about moving the department out of Juneau,” she said.
With McCauley out of the running, the new commissioner will enter an office with an interim deputy director and an interim director of instruction, the de facto No. 3 spot in the department.
The new commissioner will have to implement the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.
The commissioner will also have to come up with a new testing system to replace Alaska Measures of Progress. After the test’s failure this spring, the state asked the federal government for a waiver excusing the failure.
There is less than a year (barring another waiver) to implement a replacement.
“That’s going to be a huge task, and I think all of the candidates look like from what I know are the kind of people who would be good at facing that challenge,” Garrison said.
The new commissioner will have to make all of these changes with fewer people and less money. In fiscal year 2017, which starts July 1, the department’s budget will be 4 percent — $66 million — less than it was in fiscal year 2015, according to figures from the Legislative Finance Division of the Alaska Legislature.
The Department of Education will have lost 6 percent of its permanent staff and 61 percent of its temporary staff in the same period.
“We are going through restructuring through layoffs,” McCauley said of the process.
In April, state school board president James Fields told the Ketchikan Daily News, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a lot of people that looked at that and said, ‘This is a big job right now.’”
McDonald and Johnson each have connections to the state’s education establishment, though neither has worked at the state level before.
Norm Wooten, director of the Alaska Association of School Boards, is from Kodiak and has repeatedly served on the school board that directs McDonald. Fields, meanwhile, serves on the school board that directs Johnson.
McDonald leads the Kodiak Island Borough School District, which boasts about 2,400 students in schools across the Kodiak archipelago. According to information provided by the state department of education, McDonald worked as a special education teacher before becoming assistant superintendent and superintendent in Kodiak. He holds degrees from the University of North Florida and the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Johnson directs the Copper River School district, headquartered in Glennallen on the Richardson Highway. The district had an enrollment of 445 students in the 2013-2014 school year. He has taught and served as a principal in the Copper River district before becoming the district’s director of instruction, then superintendent. He has a doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The state education board will take public comments on the selection of a commissioner at 1:15 p.m. Thursday. Call 586-9085 at the appointed time, or visit the Goldbelt Building on 10th Street to offer your comments in person.
The board’s selection of a commissioner must be approved by Gov. Bill Walker before becoming permanent.