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Sydnee Dickson, an educator of 36 years, will be Utah's new state superintendent — its fourth in five years. The State Board of Education unanimously voted to name Dickson as the state's top education administrator Thursday evening. She has served as interim superintendent for three months, after the March resignation of Brad Smith.

Dickson, 57, has the expertise and the leadership skills, some board members said after the vote, to help Utah's classrooms move beyond a tumultuous period involving turnover of top administrators at the state Office of Education and negative attention to testing and teachers.

"She's demonstrated leadership skills and a passion for education," said Utah Board of Education Chairman David Crandall after two hours of closed-door deliberation with his colleagues. "We've thrown a lot of change her way in the past few months."

Dickson defeated her fellow finalist, Alpine School District administrator Taran Chun, after they pitched themselves to the board in back-to-back hourlong public job interviews Thursday evening in Salt Lake City.

Dickson, the former state director of teaching and learning, stressed on Thursday her willingness to re-evaluate statewide education practices in conjunction with teachers, the board and others.

But that character trait already was clear to Crandall, who noted Dickson coalesced her colleagues in passing a new policy allowing nonaccredited people with expertise in certain areas to become teachers with mentoring from seasoned instructors.

"I'm excited," Dickson said after the meeting. "I think we've got a lot of momentum."

Dickson took over when Smith took a paid leave of absence related to chronic health issues in January.

Smith's nearly year-and-a-half tenure was paired with turnover of top administrators at the state office. Smith, the former Ogden School District superintendent, also drew criticism after comparing educators at a rally in support of schools to children crying for more toys on Christmas morning.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert congratulated Dickson in a news release.

"Syd has done an excellent job over the past several months as the interim superintendent," Herbert said, "and I look forward to our continued association. Her experience as a school counselor, as well as positions at the school, district and state levels, have effectively prepared her to take the helm as superintendent."

In the Thursday interview, Dickson cast herself as a seasoned manager who can stay abreast of students' changing needs and evolving technology, all while taking a hard look at the budget. She noted that with online and alternative programs, education is no longer "always brick and mortar."

But Utah's classrooms deserve credit as "essential infrastructure," she said — scaffolding for the state's economic and financial stability — that warrant long-term investment.

Chun had portrayed himself as a savvy communicator focused on illustrating key issues to legislators and parlaying teens' high school coursework into college credit.

The Mountain View High School principal said he would take to television, radio and school auditoriums to inform lawmakers and families of needs and goings-on in Utah schools.

"We've got to put ourselves out there, and I'd be happy to be that face," said Chun, also an adjunct University of Utah professor. The Utah Valley University trustee also wants to see stronger relationships, he said, among Utah's high schools and its public universities.

The finalists took turns answering about a dozen questions from state school board members.

Board member Leslie Castle said she "purposely, in a concerted way, kept an open mind" during the interviews. But her choice became clear after more consideration. "[Dickson] has completely proven herself in the last six months."

Dickson said in her interview that she was committed to the post, despite the long days spent working with legislators, the state office, the governor's staff and families.

"It takes a lot of time," she said of the job. "There are very few days that are under 10 hours. And usually they're a lot more than that."

Dickson and Chun's priorities — as described in their own words — weren't wholly different.

Both finalists stressed a need for more funding to resource-strapped schools and to salaries for teachers, who are leaving their profession at a growing rate. Each proposed offering taxpayers a more detailed look at where education money goes. The two also made separate pledges to get the word out about stories of success in Utah schools, promising to champion teachers at the Utah Capitol.

Chun and Dickson said they wanted to mine data to get a better sense of the barriers hindering Utah's underserved and minority students. And they both believe Utah's much-debated end-of-year assessment, known as SAGE, should continue to be offered to students in third through eighth grades. The 3-year-old test is unique to Utah and gets harder if students answer correctly — or easier if they are struggling to answer the questions on a computer. It is used to measure the progress of students and schools in the state.

The board created a search committee in March to find the incoming leader. It also launched an online survey inviting the public to rank preferred qualities in a superintendent. The board then chose the pair from a roster of five semifinalists.

Dickson has worked for the state Board of Education since she left her administrative post at Granite School District in 2007. She also was a leader in Davis and Murray school districts. She has a doctoral degree in educational leadership and policy, and master's degrees in education administration and school counseling.

She will be ratified as superintendent at the board's Aug. 12 meeting.

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