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State board sets long wish list for new commissioner

Colorado Department of Education
The Colorado Department of Education.

Want to be Colorado commissioner of education? You’d better have a darned good resume.

The State Board of Education, working with the executive search firm Ray and Associates, has set a high bar for candidates in four-page flyer now available to interested applicants.

Among the 11 key characteristics listed are “excellent people skills,” “able to work with legislators,” “a strong communicator,” “a student-focused philosophy,” “a vision of quality education for the future” and “understands how to enhance student performance.” (See the full list in the copy of the flyer at the bottom of this article.)

After a fair amount of tweaking, the board set the list at a recent meeting, and those qualifications closely match priorities culled from responses to an online survey.

The board has been gearing up to find a new commissioner since Robert Hammond announced in April that he was retiring.

Ray and Associates was hired in early August, and the online survey went live later in the month. The consultants also conducted a series of interviews and meetings in early September, seeking opinions about desired characteristics in a commissioner.

The survey listed 33 possible characteristics, and respondents were asked to choose the 10 they felt to be most important.

People who took the survey also were allowed to write comments.

“The very first theme is that they want kids first and politics out,” is how Paige Fenton Hughes of Ray and Associates summarized the results for the board. Also, “there is in these comments a very strong preference for a person who comes from education.”

The comments provide an interesting, if unscientific, look at the fault lines in Colorado education today.

Several mentioned classroom experience, being able to inspire CDE, non-partisanship, sensitivity to rural needs, support for special groups of students and understanding of early childhood education, higher education and workforce needs.

The new commissioner should have “actually taught in a public school classroom for more than one year,” wrote one person.

Here are some representative comments on key issues:

Education reform: The commissioner should have a “Commitment to supporting Colorado’s reform efforts that have been ongoing for the last decade and that have made Colorado a leader among states in standards-based, data-driven instruction,” wrote one respondent. But another wrote, “It is time for a commissioner who is NOT committed to placating either the state legislature nor the federal government!”

Testing: No respondent argued for more testing. One of the more moderate testing comments went, “The state commissioner of education needs to take the lead in working with the legislature to ensure that test preparation and testing does not take excessive amounts of time away from teaching.”

Independence: Several respondents stressed the commissioner should be independent-minded. “It is important that the commissioner not be beholden to teachers’ unions or corporate interests,” wrote one. Said another: “Promotes a moderate political philosophy. Nothing extremist!”

Diversity: “Bilingual!” was all that one respondent wrote, while another noted, “I am hopeful that some female leaders emerge in this search.”

Finally, one person said, “I would like to see someone who is friendly with a good sense of humor.”

Read the full 20-page set of comments here.

About 680 people took the survey, about 25 percent of them teachers, 20 percent parents and 10 percent administrators. The survey, linked from the board’s website, was voluntary and anonymous, but respondents were asked to identify themselves by profession.

In addition to the qualities suggested in the survey and chosen by the board, state law sets these requirements for the commissioner: “The person shall have demonstrated personal and professional leadership success, preferably in the administration of public education; and the person shall possess an earned advanced degree, preferably in education or educational administration awarded from a regionally or national accredited college or university.”

Other voices also weighed in

The search firm also ran a series of interviews and focus groups with educators, state officials, advocates and others in early September. Those included state board members.

That led to a slightly uncomfortable conversation between Fenton Hughes and the board after she noted, “Virtually everybody mentioned dysfunction at the state board level. … Many felt that the political divisiveness is one of the greatest challenges for Colorado education.”

She continued, “Several of you mentioned in different ways that the board needs to work in a way so that there’s some consensus.”

Fenton Hughes said she also sensed board members are somewhat divided on whether they want a “visionary” commissioner or someone who will let the board take the lead and implement whatever it decides.

“I think it is very important for Gary [Ray] and I to understand” what the board wants, she said.

Val Flores, a Democratic board member from Denver, said, “We don’t want a toady. … We want someone who has some spine.” But the board really didn’t fully engage on Fenton Hughes’ question and moved back to discussing the flyer.

What’s next

Nov. 7 – Applications due. Applicants must submit a letter and a current resume, fill out an online application and provide four letters of recommendation.

Nov. 19 – Consultant meets with board to develop and finalize interview questions and procedures; names of top candidates presented to board.

Week of Nov. 30 – Start first round of interviews.

Week of Dec. 7 – Second round of interviews begins.

No firm deadline has been set for selecting a new commissioner.

The salary is set “in the range” of $245,000 plus benefits but will be negotiated between the board and the candidate. Hammond’s salary was $245,000.

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