Dearborn school leader chosen state superintendent

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The State Board of Education voted 7-1 Wednesday to hire Dearborn schools chief Brian Whiston as the next state superintendent of public instruction.

After daylong interviews, the statewide elected eight-member board selected Whiston over Oakland Schools Superintendent Vickie Markavitch and Scott Menzel, superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.

Whiston’s ascent to the state’s top education post comes as the Democrat-dominated State Board of Education is in a new political tussle with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and the Legislature over the best approach for turning around Michigan’s chronically failing public schools. Last week, Snyder yanked the state’s School Reform Office from the Department of Education and placed it — at least on paper — under the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which he directly controls.

“I think the biggest challenge is getting all of us on the same page — there’s different ideas and philosophies of moving education forward,” Whiston told The Detroit News after the board voted to hire him. “My job will be keeping (the discussion) centered on students first.”

The board’s vote Wednesday authorizes President John Austin to negotiate a contract with Whiston at a salary of at least $200,000 a year. Outgoing Superintendent Mike Flanagan, who is retiring at the end of June, has an annual salary of $195,200.

The 7-1 vote to hire Whiston, however, did not reflect the board’s deliberations. During an informal poll of board members, Markavitch and Menzel initially got more “first place” votes than Whiston. But Whiston remained in the running because he got more combined first- and second-place votes than Menzel.

Austin, who favored Whiston, moved to eliminate Menzel by asking board members to vote for who they did not want to eliminate. Menzel got three votes in that round, falling short to Markavitch’s six votes and five for Whiston.

The board’s two Republicans favored Menzel, citing his recent work helping consolidate the Ypsilanti and Willow Run school districts. Republican Eileen Weiser cast the lone “no” vote against Whiston. Menzel was the only candidate who had fellow school superintendents and members of the public show up to the board meeting to voice support for him.

The decision between Markavitch and Whiston came down to concerns among some board members that Markavitch is seen as a controversial figure among some Republican lawmakers, while Whiston has experience in the Legislature as a former lobbyist for Oakland Schools.

“Brian is extremely well known, extremely well liked in the Capitol,” said Austin, D-Ann Arbor. “It’s very important to me that we have both an educator with a vision and ability and a game plan on how we improve education, (but) it’s also important that they can be effective in animating that vision with all of the people in education — Legislature, governor and the field — that need to work with. I think Brian’s got the strongest abilities on those accounts.”

Whiston’s supporters cited his record as superintendent of Dearborn since 2008, raising student achievement and graduation rates, while dealing with $40 million in budget cuts and an increasingly low-income student population, nearly half of which speaks a language other than English at home.

“It’s a plus for him to come from a (local) district and he’s seen what the reforms have done on a day-to-day basis,” board member Michelle Fecteau, D-Detroit, said of student testing mandates.

But the board also scrutinized Whiston’s career path, which has mostly centered around politics, lobbying and school management.

Whiston acknowledged his teaching experience is limited to student teaching at Oak Park High School and teaching a political science class for educators for five years at Wayne State University.

“I have not taught for 20 years like some people,” said Whiston, who spent most of the 1980s and 1990s working in the Legislature and for the Oakland County Road Commission before becoming Oakland Schools’ lobbyist for 11 years.

Markavitch was the only finalist who was originally a classroom teacher.

Whiston faced questions Wednesday about his lobbying activities for Oakland Schools, which sparked a debate in Lansing over whether it’s appropriate for tax dollars to be used to influence legislators. In one instance, Whiston reportedly spent $166.50 for two rounds of golf at a February 2002 legislative conference in Palm Springs, Calif., and reported the expense as a meal.

“How are you going to handle that in the media and the public?” asked board member Lupe Ramos-Montigny, D-Grand Rapids.

Whiston said most of his lobbying expenses over 11 years at Oakland Schools were “appropriate.”

“I took people out to breakfast, lunch and dinner and I held receptions,” he said. “That happens in Lansing every day. ... I’m proud of the work I did.”

Whiston noted that in 2007, Lansing insiders named him “Lobbyist of the Year” after he “worked behind the scenes” to get the Legislature invest more than $300 million in early childhood education.

Whiston weathered the controversy and an upheaval at Oakland Schools in 2003 when the intermediate school district’s board fired then-superintendent James Redmond amid claims he paid more than $680,000 in secret buyouts and used staff development money for personal flying lessons. Redmond later served time in prison for misconduct in office.

“He was not part of the corrupt stuff in Oakland,” Austin said about Whiston.