Lansing — The State Board of Education is one step closer to hiring Michigan’s next superintendent of public instruction after narrowing down a list of 51 applicants to five semifinalists.

Former Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Ann Arbor Superintendent Jeanice Swift, Georgia chief education turnaround officer Eric Thomas, Wayne RESA Superintendent Randy Liepa and Kalamazoo Superintendent Michael Rice are competing for the post. 

Board President Casandra Ulbrich announced the semifinalists Friday after members spent most of the day in closed session reviewing a long list of applicants who had requested confidentiality during the early stages of the hiring process.

The candidates are set to come before the board for initial interviews on April 22 and April 24.

"I think we're going to have just a really diverse group of people with different backgrounds," Ulbrich told the The Detroit News, noting two of the semifinalists are African American, three are from in-state and two are from other parts of the country.

"I think we're going to learn from all five of them."

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.

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.

“Probably one of the most important jobs that the State Board of Education does is to hire and fire the state superintendent,” Ulbrich said as Friday’s meeting opened.

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.”

“We’re excited for you about the quality of candidates we feel are really worthy of your consideration,” search firm president Ryan Ray told members before they went into closed session.

The deadline to apply was March 11, and the board is aiming to finalize a selection by May 7, when it will also invite a smaller group of finalists back for a second interview. 

Ulbrich said the nearly year-long search for Winston's replacement is not unusual.

"When you're doing a national search, and you're trying to find folks at the top level in their career, it takes a while. We wanted to make sure we had a lot of different perspectives," she said.

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.

Thomas, also a former teacher and school administrator, was hired in 2017 to turn around Georgia’s most troubled schools after working for the University of Virginia’s turnaround program.

Liepa has held several public education jobs in Metro Detroit and worked as superintendent of Livonia Public Schools before taking over the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency in 2015.

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.

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