With schools flailing, Michigan seeks new leader from in-state. Again.

A bust of Michigan’s first superintendent of schools, John D. Pierce, looms over photos of the school chiefs that followed. (Bridge photo by Ron French)

Update: Michigan’s next superintendent led gains in Kalamazoo, fought GOP policies

It’s been 28 years since Michigan hired a state superintendent who was a professional educator in another state, a period that coincides with a dramatic decline in the state’s public schools.

That streak of in-state school chiefs is likely to continue Tuesday, when the State Board of Education is expected to vote to hire one of three finalists to be the next state superintendent. All three finalists are Michigan educators.

Those finalists will walk into the State Board of Education boardroom today for final interviews, past framed photographs of 45 people who’ve held the job they’re applying for. Of those 45, the first 44 are men. The one woman, current schools chief Sheila Alles, has an “interim” in front of her title.

Related: Comparing Michigan school superintendent finalists by test scores
Related: One finalist drops out, one added, to be next Michigan school superintendent

In 183 years, Michigan has never had a woman serve as a full-time state superintendent, and had only one who was a minority. All of the current finalists are white; two are men.

“It’s kind of odd,” acknowledged Mike Flanagan, state superintendent from 2005 to 2015. “You walk past those photos and you see all these old white men.”

When an organization is struggling, does it make sense to look for leadership with a different perspective, whether that be gender, race or geography?

Watch superintendent interviews live

“Clearly there is value in having someone who knows Michigan,” said Tom Watkins Jr., superintendent from 2001 to 2005. “But what has been the Michigan academic performance the past two decades? If you keep doing what you have always have done, it is likely you will keep getting what you have always have had.”

Vying for the post are Randy Liepa, superintendent of Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency; Michael Rice, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools, and Jeanice Swift, superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools.

The new superintendent will take over at a critical juncture in Michigan education. Michigan students score the lowest in the Midwest on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the “nation’s report card.” Our rank has fallen since 2003, the first year Michigan participated in the nationwide test. And we are in the bottom-third of states in most measures.

Michigan’s low-income fourth-graders ranked 49th in math in 2017, the most recent test year; white fourth-graders were 46th in reading compared with their peers in other states.

Related: On nation’s report card, Michigan students remain in back of class

In 183 years, there’s been one black and one (interim) woman state schools superintendent in Michigan.

Michigan is also below the national average in percentage of adults with a college degree – a key indicator for personal income and state prosperity.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has made education a focal point of her administration, advocating for more money for education and changes in how that money is spent.

“At no time in perhaps the past three decades has there been (as much) potential alignment of educators, the governor, state board, the business community and the Legislature to develop a shared vision and common agenda to assure educational reform,” Watkins said.

The means the next superintendent may have a chance to help make meaningful change in Michigan schools, Watkins said.

But the person chosen to lead that change is likely to be someone who’s already part of Michigan’s struggling educational system.

Swift worked as an assistant superintendent in Colorado Springs before coming to Ann Arbor in 2013. Liepa and Rice are longtime Michigan educators.

There have been flirtations with out-of-state candidates in the past two superintendent searches.

Brenda Cassellius, the former chief of schools in Minnesota, the Midwest state with the highest-rated schools, was named a finalist for the Michigan post, but dropped out last week when she was named superintendent of Boston Public Schools.

Alan Ingram, deputy superintendent of education in Massachusetts, the state with the highest-ranking schools, was a semifinalist in 2015, another year when all finalists were from inside Michigan.

Flanagan said he knows and likes Cassellius, who he said could have brought a fresh perspective to the state. “Having said that, I had a great advantage from coming from within (Michigan),” Flanagan said. “I already knew the players. So much of the job is running a large organization.”

The most recent full-time state superintendent, Brian Whiston, was previously superintendent in Dearborn; Flanagan was superintendent of Wayne RESA.

Watkins was CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County in Florida when he was hired in 2001, but he was not a professional educator, having previously been director of the Michigan Department of Mental Health. The state superintendent before Watkins was Arthur E. Ellis, who was the director of the Michigan Department of Commerce.

Robert E. Schiller, state superintendent from 1991-1995, was the last educator to be hired from out of state; he was deputy superintendent of Delaware public schools before coming to Michigan.

John Porter, who served from 1969 to 1979, was the state’s only African-American state superintendent.

Organizations often don’t realize how “biases can give the illusion of a small (talent) pipeline,” said Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks, professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. “When you have a need for fresh, innovative thinking, you’d clearly want some diversity in that.”

When hiring new leadership, organizations often balance the desire for cohesion – hiring someone who knows how things operate – with the desire for innovation that can come from fresh perspectives Sanchez-Burks said.

“When you can hire from out of state, it’s hard to justify that there is no one else qualified,” Sanchez-Burks said.

Ryan Ray, of Ray Associates, which conducted the nationwide search for the new Michigan school superintendent, declined to comment on the Michigan search. But he said it’s not uncommon for state school chiefs to be hired from out of state.

“It all really depends on whether a board feels that they (an out-of-state candidate) could come in and know the different laws within the state,” Ray said. “Sometimes boards may feel someone within a state may be a better fit, but it’s not always true.

“Most of the time people are looking for the best candidate, period.”

Casandra Ulbrich, president of the State Board of Education, declined comment for this article.

“There certainly is potential virtue in having a fresh (perspective),” said John Austin, former president of the State Board who was involved in three previous searches for state superintendents.

“There’s certainly could be some benefits in having a leader who isn’t either hostage to the Michigan-centric education system which has not made us as successful,” Austin said. “(But) being in-state doesn’t preclude you from having a vision and the skills to get there.”

Former state superintendent Flanagan said he wonders about the lack of gender diversity among past school chiefs.

For many of the 183 years Michigan has had a state superintendent “there weren’t women in the pool because they weren’t leaders at the local level,” Flanagan said. Today, “you have a lot of pent-up talent in the ranks.

“I’m not weighing in on these three (finalists),” Flanagan said. “They would each bring something to the table that would be really good for the state. But Sheila Alles, even as an interim, it opened the mindset for” gender diversity, Flanagan said. “She brings perspectives of a woman.”

The board is leading final interviews with the three finalists Tuesday, and is expected to vote on a new state superintendent late in the afternoon.

“What we call it: You’re making a marriage,” said education headhunter Ray. “You’re marrying a candidate to a system. It needs to be a right fit.”

Watkins said he wonders if the state is thinking too narrowly about that fit.

“If you are fishing for world-class fish,” Watkins said, “do you only fish in the Great Lakes?”

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Tue, 05/07/2019 - 8:40am

A better question is why does Michigan have a State Superintendant or a State Board of Education? Isn’t education supposed to be local? That is the way it was years ago, and then politicians got into the act thinking that could be better educators, doctors, engineers or whatever else they try to control. Do away with the excess expense at the top and distribute the savings to the local schools. It might be surprising to some what the outcome would be.

Wed, 05/08/2019 - 9:54am

You must of forgot that the people of MI agains believed Englers lies and gave ALL local school money to the republicans in Lansing to put into the general fund and illegally give to privet schools own by DeCos and Duggan!!!

Tue, 05/07/2019 - 8:53am

While I can certainly understand the logic of this argument, it really oversimplifies Michigan's problems. Using this logic, perhaps we should also seek legislators from out of state? For what it's worth, M. Rice came to Michigan from New Jersey and isn't exactly a Michigan lifer.

Bob Potocki
Tue, 05/07/2019 - 8:55am

This article perfectly shows why Michigan is in trouble. Our country is based on a theory of enlightenment. Using facts, figures and logic to create a better world. Superstition and Prejudice has no place at the table. Its about educating the kids. Stop using my money to push racial, regional and sexist stereotypes. Stop using my money to finance dumb charter schools. Stop using my money to make Ryder wealthy hustling school kids all across the map like pawns.
With technology and caring people, we can educate the kids.
But strip out the political agenda's. Its a horrible misuse of the power of government.
Its just plain abusive.

Tue, 05/07/2019 - 8:56am

This would be like if another state hired someone from Michigan to oversee their drinking water supply. We obviously don't know what we are doing. Time to expand that hiring circle to include candidates from states that are actually successful in educating their public.

Tue, 05/07/2019 - 9:24am

The idea that a leader should be selected because they fit a particular demographic class is wrong-headed. If one proclaims "We must choose this candidate because this candidate is a member of XXXX class", then that also invites others to proclaim "We should not choose this candidate because this candidate is a member of XXXX class." We've seen that road...it isn't pretty.

Further, are we saying that folks from a particular classification are "better" at certain jobs? Yeah, we've been down that road before too, and it also isn't pretty.

Perhaps we could worry more about qualifications and less about checking a box for classifications?

Jodi Berger
Tue, 05/07/2019 - 9:26am

Really Ron French? Your comment is nearsighted--if honest (if not, I hope you have no luck selling our schools to corporate interests). As expert Diane Ravitch states, "Nearly a quarter of America's children live in poverty, the highest of any advanced nation. In every country, even high-performing nations like South Korea, disadvantaged students do worse academically. Regardless of teacher quality, across nations the achievement gap grows as income inequality widens. The gap is the smallest in countries with strong social systems that protect the welfare of children." (https://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/blumner-schools-arent-really-fa...) Check out this article (and other credible sources). Michigan public schools are not failing. You and other apathetic citizens are. Sorry ( I am guilty too). Our kids deserve someone who knows our state, and who cares about ALL kids, especially those we've been ignoring.

Tue, 05/07/2019 - 9:27am

Absent research on my part, I'd just be guessing if I said that it's likely that none of our previous state superintendents has taught or administered in struggling inner city (impoverished) school districts. Consequently, it's very difficult to gain perspective on how to bring change and improvement to those districts that need it the most.

Maureen Martin
Tue, 05/07/2019 - 10:00am

Well, for one thing, I'd certainly take down the pictures on the wall. Hideous optics.

For another, I wouldn't let a finalist pool exclude people of color. Very poor search results.

Nancy Flanagan
Tue, 05/07/2019 - 12:52pm

'Nationwide' searches for the Candidate Who Walks on Water are common. Institutions want to think big, expand their ideas. And sometimes, the search does yield a good candidate--Brenda Cassellius, who was Chief in MN, had some original ideas and a good track record. But way too many Big-Name Superintendents these days are part of the Broad group, trained in rigid and punitive accountability practice and likely to last through a couple of years of media-fed turmoil before moving to a bigger and more visible position.

The question for all candidates--regardless of age, gender or color--is 'Why do you want to lead Michigan schools, knowing that their reputation, once sterling, is fading?' If it's just about the next step up in a career that will include further steps up, then all the talk about vision and Top Ten is just that: talk.

Give me a workhorse candidate any day--a person who understands the people and the problems, and is willing to work with Michigan's assets as well as their current liabilities, someone who clearly sees the problems and issues and will roll up their sleeves.

Tue, 05/07/2019 - 1:06pm

Did the State Board of Education violate the Open Meetings Act in selecting finalists for interview? From what I could see, they came out of closed session and announced finalists with no discussion. The public therefore has no idea what criteria/considerations the Board took into account in selecting the 5 candidates that they interviewed. If they made decisions behind closed doors, that would be a violation. No one has called them on it and I wonder why? Were they allowed to cull the list behind closed doors?

Tue, 05/07/2019 - 4:02pm

Hmmm, seems like for the past number of years the legislatures have held the purse strings on public education in Michigan. Perhaps getting them out of it and/or having voting districts that truly represent the people of the state might be a better place to focus attention toward real root causes of our problems with public education. Until then, who is put into the State Superintendent's position isn't our biggest worry.

I've had the chance to work with Randy Liepa and know he would be an excellent advocate for quality public education for ALL students. I do not know the other two candidates, and do not have an opinion and certainly wouldn't weigh in based on what has been pushed in the Bridge articles written on this topic.

Our children's quality of learning is at stake here, stop the political positioning and focus on what's good for children and Michigan, United States and the world.
After all we are all in it together!

John S.
Tue, 05/07/2019 - 4:21pm

What fresh ideas are there in K-12 education? If educators in this state have yet to figure out what works and what doesn't work to increase the academic performance of students I'd say that we're in trouble. There are some basics: (1) experienced and skilled leadership able to get the support and hard work of others, (2) high standards, (3) hard work (homework), (4) stable curriculum, (5) parental involvement, (6) experienced, knowledgeable, and motivated teachers. There must be a scientific literature on best educational practices. Any new leader should pay attention to it. Adults love to pay attention to stuff that doesn't matter all that much such as public vs. charter vs. schools of choice, class sizes, unions, testing, accountability, diversity, etc., etc. My guess is that there is no substitute for hard work ( using the prefrontal cortex) and rewarding success and not failure.

Wed, 05/08/2019 - 9:52am

Well they can give back all the money that the republicans illegally gave DeVoss and Duggans Privet schools! Stop all the testing for not good reasion but to take moer money from the schools. AND put back Math, Handwriting, Government ...... etc back into our schools!!

Thu, 05/09/2019 - 9:07am

Way to not mention that we're trying to find a replacement because ours DIED, but rather insinuate it's because of failure. Disrespectful attempt at controversy.

John P Davis
Thu, 05/09/2019 - 8:12pm

Even as Michigan tries so hard to become "more competitive" in relation to other States (and countries?)... even as it tries to become "more attractive" to Millennials and GenZers (who head for Chicago, New York or Seattle after graduating from U-M, MSU, etc.)... even as we strive to at least "look like" World Class, we and our Michigan remain, in the end, an insular State with little care or interest in keeping up with the cities, States and places beyond our borders. Education? Look at our roads (as you drive into Ohio, or Indiana, or ... you name it).