Utah lawmakers criticize schools boss selection process
Education • School board hopes to choose leader before legislative session.
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Four Republican legislators are criticizing the state school board, saying the process they've devised to select a new state superintendent "flies in the face of representative government."

The head of the state school board, however, said Thursday it's the same process that's been used in the past — a method that will allow education leaders to find the best candidate from the widest pool possible but in time for the legislative session.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper; Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem; Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper; and Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, issued their joint statement Thursday, less than a week after State Superintendent Larry Shumway officially announced his retirement from the post.

The statement accuses the 15-member, elected state school board of rushing the selection process. That rush, the statement says, could lead to fewer qualified candidates. It also notes that by selecting someone in October, new board members elected in November will have no say.

Board leaders have already put together a board selection committee and have said they hope to complete the process in mid-October.

"It really undermines the representative government that we have when everybody knows that half of the school board is up for election," Stephenson said. "There could be half of the school board that may be new and that had no choice in the new superintendent."

Board chair Debra Roberts, however, said Thursday that the timing of the process doesn't have to do with November elections. She said the board hopes to wrap it up in October to give Shumway time to train his replacement for the legislative session, which starts in late January. Shumway is slated to retire effective Jan. 1.

Roberts said it's vital a new superintendent be ready by the next legislative session because of the board's constitutional partnership with the Legislature. Those newly elected to the board in November won't even take their seats until January.

"Those weeks at the Legislature are some of the most important weeks during the year to honor that partnership," Roberts said. "We really need our CEO to be in place and be prepared to have the contacts and influence necessary to be on the Hill to have that kind of partnership."

State Office of Education leaders typically work at the Capitol most days of the session, answering questions in committee hearings, representing the board's point of view and working with lawmakers on budgets.

Hughes said he doesn't see why board members and other state office staff can't fill that role. Roberts, however, said board members often have other jobs and commitments that prevent them from attending every day.

She also pointed out that the state Senate didn't wait until after the November elections to make its recent confirmations. The Senate confirmed David Buhler as commissioner of higher education last month.

Dixie Allen, board vice chair, said she believes the Legislature is overstepping its bounds on the issue. She said she personally wanted to appoint an interim superintendent but the board wasn't comfortable with that option and wanted someone who could hit the ground running.

Roberts said the position will be advertised through four or five national groups as well as locally. Potential candidates are asked to submit applications, after which a selection committee composed of board members will look at applications and narrow the pool for preliminary interviews.

Lawmakers and other education leaders will be invited to meet and question candidates at those interviews, and also discuss them afterward, Roberts said. Then the committee will use that input to narrow the pool down to only a handful of candidates who will be brought in for final interviews. The state school board will ultimately decide on the next superintendent.

Allen said board candidates will also be invited to board selection meetings.

Still, Hughes said he worries the short time frame will mean fewer qualified applicants. The last time the board went through this process, it chose the new superintendent about 12 weeks after the previous one announced her retirement. This time around, the entire process could take only about six or seven weeks, if the board sticks to its time frame.

"I just don't know that addressing that short-term issue with a long-term decision of who the superintendent will be is a wise course," Hughes said of the board's desire to have someone in place by the legislative session.

The statement released Thursday also suggests that perhaps the board has shortened its selection time frame because it already has unofficially decided on someone for the job.

Roberts said she hopes certain people will apply, but she doesn't know for sure if they will, and no one has been pre-selected.

"I just hope we don't politicize this process," Roberts said, "that we work together to find the best state superintendent of public instruction."

lschencker@sltrib.comTwitter: @lschencker