The Search for a New State Schools Chief is On — Again

Stan Heffner, soon after being named Ohio Schools Superintendent in 2011.(Photo: Ida Lieszkovszky, State Impact Ohio)
Stan Heffner, soon after being named Ohio Schools Superintendent in 2011.(Photo: Ida Lieszkovszky, State Impact Ohio)

Talk about a case of déjà vu.

Stan Heffner began his role of State Superintendent of Public Instruction about a year ago with this statement to the Ohio Board of Education:

“We will work with you in the cause of children and again I thank you for this opportunity.”

Now, the Board of Education is once again looking for a state schools chief.

Heffner resigned last month after a report by the state inspector general detailed how he inappropriately lobbied for a private-testing firm last year. At the time, he was set to take a job with the company in Texas. The IG’s report said he also used state equipment, time, and employees to take care of his personal business as he prepared to move – and has been passed onto prosecutors.

Board President Debe Terhar says the board didn’t even get to consider the report, but she understands why Heffner resigned.

Terhar: “He just felt that he was becoming, and these were his words, he was becoming a distraction to what we needed to be concentrating on with education. “

Michael Sawyers, former deputy superintendent, is now acting superintendent of public instruction. He’s likely to become the interim superintendent following a board meeting on next week—though he’s not sure if he’ll apply for the full time job yet.

Sawyers: “I have yet to decide. I don’t know if I’m going to apply or not. “

But some think Sawyers will not apply since he has a bit of history, too. When he was superintendent of Perry Local schools up in Lake County, he used a district credit card to charge more than 850 dollars worth of personal expenses like gas and food.

“It was a mistake on my part, I accept the responsibility, I made restitution and ultimately disclosed it when I applied for a position at the Ohio Department of Education. “

Board President Terhar admits it’s been a tough year for the Department of Education.

“It’s been a challenge. It’s been a real challenge.”

The department’s budget was slashed and dozens of employees were laid off last summer.
The governor appointed a new board member this spring who had no college degree and for whom he could not produce a resume.
And the department is under investigation by the state auditor to see if it was involved in falsification of student attendance data at schools around the state.

Now it has to once again find someone to fill the state’s top education post.

“Now the question is, ‘How do we go about recruiting a new superintendent.’”

That’s board member Mary Rose Oakar. She has a suggestion for finding a good, long-term superintendent.

“I think we should have a professional agency reach out and do a search for a new superintendent, not the executive committee.”

When Heffner was hired, the board did the search in-house to save money.

“We tried that once, we got very mediocre people with one or two exceptions, and I think we didn’t have a good range to choose from. “

Basically, Oakar is asking for a headhunter.

“That’s right, a headhunter, is that what you call it? That’s what I want. Because I think you need that. I don’t think anybody has the time really, or are qualified to go nationally about who you want to be superintendent. You want the best people to apply for what is the highest-ranking job in education in our state. I mean we’re a large state.”

An outside agency was used to find Heffner’s predecessor, Deb Delisle; it cost the department roughly 45,000 dollars.

Even with an outside company taking over the search, it could be months, even half-a-year before the state has a new superintendent.

“Certainly there’s a concern about continuity, and I’m a strong believer in having continuous leadership.”

Jack Conrath runs a superintendent training program at Ohio State University. Until Gov. John Kasich engineered the early ouster of Delisle, Ohio’s state superintendents served for a long time.

“The others were all here an excess of 10, 12, up to 14 years, and that allows things to happen.”

Heffner may have held the position for just a year, but during that time, he passed several statewide education initiatives, including the third-grade reading guarantee. He also overhauled the way teachers are evaluated, and updated the way school districts are graded each year.

Conrath says the best thing the state school board can do is find a candidate that is on board with all those initiatives, and someone who can handle the pressures of a very public office and will stick around for at least a few years.


For more Ohio education news, visit State Impact Ohio,  a reporting collaborative between NPR and public radio stations WCPN, WKSU and WOSU.