Ohio's state supe search: seeking top-notch talent on the cheap?

Yesterday, two days before the state board of education was slated to announce Ohio's new state superintendent, a second of the three finalists for the job removed himself from consideration. And the word on the street is that he exited the race over money, something the board could have prevented.

Last month the board selected three finalists from forty applications: Steve Dackin, superintendent of Reynoldsburg (Ohio) City School District; Robert Schiller, education consultant & former Michigan and Illinois state superintendent; and Robert Sommers, Director of (Ohio) Governor's Office of 21st Century Education.

Sommers was an early favorite. He has experience in virtually every sector of the K-12 education system. Further, as Governor Kasich's point-person on education, who could be better to implement the governor's education policy reforms? As it turned out, Sommers was too close to the governor to serve as state superintendent, at least in the eyes of the Ohio Ethics Commission. The commission advised Sommers that if he became state superintendent, the state's ???revolving-door??? rules would prevent him from communicating with his former employer for one year. Being state superintendent is challenging enough, but to do it without regular access to the governor and his staff, who are driving much of the state's reform work? That's a recipe for impossibility. (Yes, Ohio's revolving-door rule is a bizarre one, at least when applied to cases of people moving jobs within state government; as Mike Petrilli commented to me, ???That's like saying Margaret Spellings couldn't have become Secretary of Education.???)

Now the board's tightfistedness may have cost a second finalist. Dackin announced yesterday that he was removing himself from consideration and signing a four-year contract extension with Reynoldsburg. The district is expected to give him a $25,000 raise in order to keep him around, bringing his salary to $145,000 before bonuses. The grapevine reports that the salary amount discussed between Dackin and members of the state board of education for the state post was unworkably low.

Is Ohio trying to get top-notch leadership for a key position on the cheap? Possibly.

The right salary for the job is certainly debatable. Deborah Delisle, who resigned as state superintendent in April, made $194,500. Her predecessor, Susan Tave Zelman, earned more than $200,000. In Florida, Eric Smith made $245,000 as education commissioner. Members of the Ohio governor's cabinet make anywhere from about $116,000 to $182,000, and the governor himself is paid $144,000.

Consider also that next door in Indiana, where the superintendent position is a statewide elected office, State Supt. Tony Bennett makes about $80,000 per year.

But if Dackin did make his decision based on money, his last-minute withdrawal is the board's own fault. Ideally, the board should have been flexible about how much to pay the person they decided to hire. But if that weren't possible, why not make the salary limitations clear to all candidates months ago?

The board had intended to announce the new state superintendent tomorrow, and all bets were on Dackin. What happens now? The board doesn't have to hire Schiller tomorrow; its timeline is self-imposed so it may re-open the search and beat the bushes for more candidates. Stay tuned to Flypaper for the latest.

- Emmy Partin

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