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Utah's next state superintendent will be a man with a background in education, based on a list of final candidates released Monday by the State Board of Education.
Ogden School District Superintendent Brad Smith and Granite School District Superintendent Martin Bates made the cut, as did John Barge, Georgia's state superintendent, and former Wyoming Department of Education director Rich Crandall.
"I think we have a good, strong field of candidates," said State School Board Chairman David Crandall, who is not related to Rich Crandall.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, was not on the list of finalists. She confirmed in August that she had applied for the position. Lockhart is not seeking re-election this year and is rumored as a potential challenger to Gov. Gary Herbert in 2016.
Her interest in the position generated discussion about the necessary qualifications for the state's top education job. School reform advocates had been pushing for nontraditional candidates including someone from outside education circles.
Lockhart did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
David Crandall said that while the four finalists have worked in education, they also represent a variety of backgrounds.
Bates was named Granite School District superintendent in 2010 after working in administrative roles in the district since 1997.
John Barge was elected as Georgia's superintendent of schools in 2010. He was a candidate for the state's gubernatorial election this year but failed to win his party's nomination.
Rich Crandall, a Utah native, was a member of the Arizona State Senate before resigning to lead the Wyoming Department of Education. He was later removed from the department after the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled against the law that created his appointed position.
Smith worked as an attorney before accepting the position of superintendent at the Ogden School District.
He was a member of the district's school board during a 2011 dispute with the Ogden teachers union after educators were left out of contract negotiations. After taking the superintendent's post the next year, Smith implemented a series of unpopular administration shake-ups, including demoting principals of low-performing schools. Performance at some of those schools has improved during his tenure.
David Crandall said he didn't anticipate any backlash from Utah's political community as a result of Lockhart being excluded from the finalists.
"I think Speaker Lockhart was probably seen, even by legislators, as a very nontraditional type of candidate," he said.
Utah Education Association President Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh said that while the four finalists have managerial experience in education, she wouldn't describe them all as educators.
Gallagher-Fishbaugh said it's important for the next superintendent to understand what happens in a classroom and to be able to represent the state's teachers.
"It's our hope that the State School Board would recognize that being a superintendent is far more than just being a manager," she said.
She also said it would be "tragic" if the selection of a state superintendent were to become politicized or influenced by partisan interests.
"This isn't about a political career," she said. "This isn't about politics right, left or center. This is about the students and doing what's best for children and teachers in this state."
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said he was impressed with the quality of the four finalists and that it was unlikely lawmakers would react negatively to the announcement out of loyalty to Lockhart.
"There are real pioneers in education reform there who have been courageous in setting new levels of achievement for students," he said.
Stephenson said state law is clear that the superintendent does not need to have worked as a professional educator. He complimented the State School Board for their process of looking at a broad range of candidates.
"The person is really a CEO of our education system and needs to have in-depth experience in running an operation of this magnitude," he said. "But not particularly to have been an educator him or herself."
The State Office of Education is currently led by Interim State Superintendent Joel Coleman, who was selected in August after former State Superintendent Martell Menlove announced his retirement. Coleman also serves as superintendent of the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind, a position he will retain after Menlove's long-term replacement is chosen by the State School Board.
The four finalists will be interviewed by board members in a series of one-hour open meetings on Thursday at the Utah State Office of Education.
Board members will then discuss the candidates during a closed portion of their monthly meeting on Oct. 10. A new superintendent will be named in the days immediately following the interviews, according to board spokeswoman Emilie Wheeler.