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SBE chews on commissioner search

Chatter among State Board of Education members Thursday foreshadowed possible debates to come about the selection of a new education commissioner.

The board met with the headhunters who are helping find a new commissioner. The session was the first full meeting between the board and representatives of the Illinois search firm Hazard, Young, Attea since the board hired the company in December.

Rick O’Connell and Ellen Bartlett briefed on the board on the firm’s plans for the search process. Both are Colorado residents, O’Connell is a former Douglas County Schools superintendent and Bartlett is a former Dougco human resources director.

The two laid out ideas for gathering public input, advertising the job and vetting candidates.

But the procedural conversation sparked some interesting discussion, particularly between board Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, and Elaine Gantz Berman, D-1st District. (Schaffer participated in the meeting via a two-way video hookup from Fort Collins. The other six members were in the boardroom at Department of Education headquarters.)

Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education / File photo

Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, chair of the State Board of Education

After O’Connell had described the sorts of education interest groups his group will survey during the search, Schaffer said, “This is pretty focused on the education industry. … We’re not going to get there with this group. I would like to see a strong emphasis on business. … We’ve got to get some business and private sector leadership playing a significant role in selecting the commissioner.”

Berman suggested touching base with Colorado Concern and Colorado Forum, two groups that tend to represent mainline downtown Denver business interests.

“Those are fine groups,” Schaffer said, “but the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry would be a likely one; so would the National Federation of Independent Business … maybe some mining and energy companies. … We’ve got to reach beyond traditional education organizations.”

Other board members chimed in with other suggestions for outreach, such as regional business groups. New member Paul Lundeen, R-5th District, suggested education reform groups like Teach for America and perhaps even former D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee herself.

O’Connell assured the board, “We will try to meet with as many of these groups as possible during the time frame.”

Schaffer acknowledged that he’s “mindful of the ambitious calendar” the board has set for the search. “I don’t want that to be delayed without good cause.”

Schaffer and Berman had a livelier exchange on the question of how best to keep candidate names confidential.

“This issue of confidentiality is so extraordinarily important. … I’m going to suggest we all sign a confidentiality form,” Berman said.

Schaffer wasn’t comfortable about that idea, saying he’s accountable only to his constituents and “I just need to give more thought if some sort of contract with other elected officials is ever a good idea. … My initial response is negative.”

“There’s no basis on which I’m accountable to you,” Schaffer said to Berman.

“Unfortunately, that’s true,” Berman said with a loud laugh.

“I think everybody on this board understands the dangers,” said Vice Chair Marcia Neal, R-3rd District. “It’s not something to decide today.” (Neal was conducting the meeting since Schaffer was in cyberspace.)

Later, Berman asked, “When will the board be talking about the whole issue of a unanimous vote?” (Former Commissioner Dwight Jones was chosen by unanimous vote in 2007.)

O’Connell said, “That’s the preferred solution for most candidates” but that “it’s kind of hard to have that conversation until you get much farther in the process.”

“I would hope as early as possible we have conversation among ourselves” about that, Berman said.

Under the calendar discussed by the board Thursday, an initial job posting will go live on the Department of Education and Hazard websites Friday, and an online survey will be done Friday through Jan. 26. The search firm will be doing interviews from now through Feb. 8.

The firm will report to the board Feb. 9 on what it’s learned from the survey of opinion about the desired characteristics of a new commissioner. A revised job posting will go up Feb. 17.

The search firm hopes to discuss possible candidates with the board in mid-April, with interviews to follow and a selection possibly made at the May 11 board meeting. The goal is that a new commissioner will start work July 1.

Are we spending too much on schools?

Former Commissioner William Moloney revisited his old CDE haunts briefly on Thursday to give the board of summary of a policy brief he’s written for an organization called the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University. (Conservative firebrand and former state Senate President John Andrews is director of the outfit.)

The 14-page document is titled “Much Better Schools on Much Lower Budgets” and argues that the tight budget situation facing the state should force policymakers to rethink school spending levels.

Moloney tossed out phrases like “the looming fiscal tsunami,” “the potential savings are immense” and “the profound dimension of our crisis” in his monologue to the board. He also said, “The most disastrous education reform of the last half century is class size reduction” because of the resulting personnel costs.

Board members received Moloney’s presentation politely. “You’ve given us a lot to think about,” said Neal. (The board’s official legislative priorities call for “efforts to improve the long-term financial stability of education funding and develop a comprehensive school finance solution” and also call for efforts “to prevent further cuts to K-12 education funding.”)

The Moloney article has been circulating quietly around the education community, raising mild concerns in some quarters (teacher unions) that it will be used as conservative ammunition in coming school finance debates.