State Superintendent Brian Whiston dies at 56

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Brian Whiston, Michigan’s state superintendent, died Monday night, several months after being diagnosed with cancer, and just days into a cancer-related medical leave. He was 56.

Whiston announced in March that he would be taking a long-term medical leave within 30 to 60 days. On Friday, officials with the Michigan Department of Education announced Whiston began his leave.

At a State Board of Education meeting in February, Whiston told The Detroit News that he “started off with liver and kidney failure, went to cancer and then a heart attack. The last two months have been a little rough. ... I have a good sense of humor and good faith, so I am in good shape.”

Whiston was superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools before being appointed as state superintendent by the State Board of Education in April 2015.

As state superintendent, Whiston set a priority to make Michigan a Top 10 education state in 10 years, working with educators, students, parents, businesses and policy leaders in Michigan.

In a recent opinion piece published in The News on March 7, Whiston wrote about Michigan’s plan, saying strategies span the breadth of a student’s educational experience — from early childhood through K-12 and post-secondary opportunities.

“Together, we are engaged to find a set of actions in which we can move forward together with one voice. That is how we can work collectively and continue to become a Top 10 education state in 10 years,” Whiston wrote.

The state board gave Whiston a rating of outstanding on his annual evaluation and extended his contract by one year in March.

On Tuesday afternoon, the State Board of Education appointed Sheila Alles as interim state superintendent, Michigan Department of Education spokesman Martin Ackley said.

Alles was the chief deputy superintendent under Whiston. She is a former teacher in the Plymouth-Canton Community Schools. She also had administrative experience as a curriculum coordinator and curriculum director. In the Livonia Public Schools, Alles was an elementary principal, director of elementary instruction, director of academic services and chief academic officer.

The Michigan Senate earlier Tuesday honored Whiston with a moment of silence Tuesday morning following an emotional floor speech by state Sen. Morris Hood, D-Detroit.

Hood recalled meeting Whiston at a conference after he was first elected to the state House in 2003. A group including Whiston would convene each evening at their hotel for “political conversation and political beverages” before going out to dinner, Hood recalled.

“I just learned a lot from Brian. His wit. His humor. He was just a heck of a guy,” Hood said. “He’ll be missed in the education community, but he’ll also be missed in our communities and the state as a whole.”

In a statement released by the Michigan Department of Education, State Board of Education co-presidents Casandra Ulbrich and Richard Zeile said Whiston "was a wonderful person who devoted his life to serving others. He was always focused on doing what is best for the children of Michigan.”

Gov. Rick Snyder said, in a statement, that Whiston was “an outstanding partner who understood that, just as teachers work every day to challenge their students to do better, we all need to challenge ourselves to do better for students.”

Before becoming the state’s top education official, Whiston was superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools, from 2008 to early 2015. He also was director of government and community services for Oakland Schools and a local school board member for 17 years.

During his 11 years as director of government and community services for the Oakland County ISD, Whiston worked with state government to bring financial resources to schools, lead his department to improved student achievement, and help make all schools in the county successful, according to officials at Michigan Department of Education.

Tom Watkins, who served as state superintendent from 2001 to 2005, said Michigan lost a decent man and a caring educator.

“Brian cared deeply about preparing all Michigan’s children for their future and not our past. He understood and acted on the fact that our schools, teachers and especially our students are more than the sum total of a single test given on a single day,” Watkins said.

Agustin Arbulu, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said he had the privilege of working with Whiston in response to the wave of bias incidents and hate speech that surged through Michigan schools in late 2016.

“He was committed to making schools safe for all students to learn and develop,” Arbulu said. “We have lost a true champion for the rights of all children to a quality education free from discrimination, bullying and hate.”

Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, said many MEA members worked closely with Whiston over the years and respected his leadership and his vision, even on the occasions when they disagreed.

“Brian Whiston was, above all else, a good person who will be missed by all who knew him,” Herbart said. “Everything he did as our state superintendent grew from his strong belief in the power of public education to change students’ lives. He was, first and foremost, an educator.”

Whiston is survived by his wife Beth, three children and five grandchildren. Funeral details will be forthcoming.

Staff writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.