Candidates for state school superintendent job narrowed to three

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Brenda Cassellius, from left, Michael Rice and Jeanice Swift

The State Board of Education voted Wednesday to bring three candidates back for interviews next month for the post of state superintendent of public instruction.

The top three finalists are former Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Kalamazoo Superintendent Michael Rice and Ann Arbor Superintendent Jeanice Swift.

The board started with five finalists Wednesday and reduced the number to three over several hours of debate and three votes.

The board eliminated two candidates, Wayne RESA Superintendent Randy Liepa and Georgia chief education turnaround officer Eric Thomas.

The three finalists will undergo a second round of public interviews on May 7, Michigan Department of Education spokesman Bill DiSessa said.

"I look forward to putting people on the record," state board treasurer Tom McMillin, R-Oakland Township, said of the May 7 interviews.

On Monday, the board interviewed the two out-of-state finalists, Cassellius and Thomas. Cassellius is also a current candidate for Boston Public Schools and appeared by Skype for her interview. Rice, Swift and Liepa were interviewed by the board on Wednesday.

Board member Judith Pritchett, D-Washington Township, said Cassellius should continue as a finalist so the board can dig deeper into her background and credentials. 

"As she looks at problems at the state level, she will still focus in on the classroom. She has the experience and an outside perspective," Pritchett said.

If Cassellius is hired for the Boston Public School superintendent job, the state board agreed to invite Liepa back as a finalist candidate.

Several board members supported Liepa as a finalist and were upset he was eliminated.

"His experience in finance is what we need right now. But I accept the decision of the board," said board secretary Michelle Fecteau, D-Detroit.

The board hired executive search firm Ray & Associates to conduct an international search to replace former state Superintendent Brian Whiston, who died in office after a battle with cancer.

The state received 51 applicants for the job. Chief Deputy Sheila Alles has served as interim state superintendent since Whiston’s death in May, but the eight-member Board of Education has the constitutional responsibility to appoint a permanent replacement.

The state superintendent is the day-to-day operational leader of the Michigan Department of Education and works with the board to develop and lead a strategic plan for student improvement.

In a job description post, the board said it was looking for a leader with “a vision and strategy” to improve learning outcomes for all children and a “demonstrated ability to lead … in a politically charged, multi-stakeholder environment.”

Cassellius is a former teacher who worked as Minnesota education commissioner from 2010 until earlier this year when that state’s new governor picked a replacement.

Swift worked for three decades as a teacher, coach, principal and school administrator before taking over Ann Arbor Public Schools in 2013.

Rice has served as Kalamazoo Public Schools superintendent since 2007 and previously worked as a teacher in Washington, D.C., and as a local superintendent in New Jersey.