Board taps Kalamazoo school leader Michael Rice as state superintendent

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Kalamazoo Superintendent Michael Rice

Lansing — The State Board of Education on Thursday selected Kalamazoo Superintendent Michael Rice as the state's next superintendent of public instruction, citing Rice's clear vision for the state's education system and his experience in districts outside of Michigan.

"If we’re going to turn around Michigan, we need to bring in some ideas from outside,” said board chairwoman Casandra Ulbrich.

The 5-3 decision from the Michigan Board of Education comes a year to the day since the death of Michigan’s former state Superintendent Brian Whiston.

Rice, 56, previously worked as a teacher in Washington, D.C., and as a local superintendent in New Jersey. He has served as Kalamazoo Public Schools superintendent since 2007.

He was interviewed Tuesday along with finalists Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency Superintendent Randy Liepa and Ann Arbor Superintendent Jeanice Swift. The trio had been whittled down from 51 applicants for the position.

Rice will replace Chief Deputy Sheila Alles, who has been filling the role since the death of Whiston, who died May 7, 2018, after a battle with cancer.

Rice's contract has yet to be negotiated, but it is likely to be a three-year pact worth $216,000 a year starting July 1, Ulbrich said. 

The three Michigan-based school officials interviewed Tuesday were narrowed down in April from a group of five that included a former Minnesota education commissioner and Georgia chief education turnaround officer.

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 interviews that lasted nearly an hour and a half each Tuesday, Rice, Liepa and Swift fielded board questions about teacher shortages, school and learning choice, the role of technology in education and ever-changing requirements and accountability measures due to new legislation.

'We're in a stew'

Rice said his 12 years of experience leading Kalamazoo’s diverse school district and experience in other urban districts have prepared him well for the various challenges facing school districts throughout the state.

“We’re a mix; we’re a stew,” Rice said. “We’re every bit the challenge that exists across the state of Michigan.”

Rice told board members more spending on public schools is critical, especially when it comes to addressing the chronic underfunding of "English language students, poor students and special needs students."

He expressed hopes for partnerships and collaborations with businesses to increase technical education and strengthen the state's "talent pipelines." He said he would like to increase pay, benefits and professional development for teachers.

"We are close to a point in this state that the form of education our young people receive is going to be affected by the teacher shortage," he said.

Rice weighed in on a variety of policy discussions stemming from the GOP-led Legislature, voicing opposition to public funds going toward private schools, the "punitive" retention requirements of the state's third grade reading laws and the dual accountability system created when state lawmakers passed the A-F grading system during lame duck session in December. 

The grading system is "not well thought out," Rice said, and presents schools with the "Solomon-like challenge" of abiding by more than one accountability measure at the same time. 

A superintendent who is "willing to push back on bad policy" is exactly what the board was seeking, Ulbrich said.

"The things he expressed today are things we’ve heard from the field for the last couple years," she said. "We wouldn’t have hired someone if they weren’t willing to do that.”

During and after his interview, board members brought up concerns expressed by constituents about Rice's allegedly commanding nature. Board member Lupe Ramos-Montigny said she had heard from teachers concerned about Rice and voted against his hire. 

"He is the first one in command and the last one in command," Ramos-Montigny said. "In other words, he has all of the command."

Rice defended his leadership style during his interview, noting he meets monthly with teacher, parent, and student advisory councils in Kalamazoo schools. 

"I know no one who is uniformly loved as a leader," Rice said. "There are people who like me. There are people who don’t.”

The Tri-County Alliance for Public Education congratulated Rice on his selection and the Education Trust-Midwest expressed hope that Rice would become "the visionary leader that Michigan students need him to be."

"Taking Michigan public education from the national bottom to top 10 will require systemic change at all levels," Executive Director Amber Arellano said in a statement.

Other candidates weigh in

Liepa, who was added to the trio of finalists last week after another candidate dropped out, spoke about his work in Livonia and Wayne County schools while noting the experience and connections he possessed for the state superintendent role.

Liepa told the board that the building blocks to better education in Michigan were collaboration among teachers and the assurance that education professionals and students at all levels have the resources needed to do their jobs well.

“We can’t be in 50,000 classrooms but we can make sure there are systems in place and that we are meeting individual school districts where they’re at,” he said.

The three board members who voted against Rice's hire expressed support for Liepa. 

Swift, a former teacher, coach, principal and school administrator, said her priority would be to make public schools the first quality option in Michigan communities. But she acknowledged families should have a choice in terms of programming, buildings and alternative education options.

However, Swift warned, "choice doesn’t solve a chronic under-funding of schools in our state."

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