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The four men vying for the position of state superintendent sat for a final job interview on Thursday in front of their 15 would-be employers and roughly 25 spectators.
Members of the State School Board quizzed the candidates on their outlook for the future of the state, Utah's adoption of new standards in math and English and the new computer adaptive testing system, SAGE, which is expected to show a decline in student proficiency when scores are released this month.
Each candidate was given one hour to present themselves to the board. A final selection could be made as early as Friday.
Richard Crandall spent seven years in the Arizona Legislature before leaving in 2013 to accept the newly created position of director of the Wyoming Department of Education, a role that was previously held by an elected superintendent of schools.
But in January, the Wyoming Supreme Court ruled against the law that created Crandall's job, reinstating ousted Superintendent Cindy Hill.
Crandall, who now lives in Lehi, said that Utah will likely never have the per-student revenues that he enjoyed in the Wyoming, where a robust mining industry and comparatively small families have filled state coffers.
"We have to focus our efforts where it will have the biggest return," he said. "We can not be all things to all people. We have to decide what's most important to us as a state."
He said one of his areas of focus as state superintendent would be on literacy, and that in as little as six years Utah could lead the nation.
"We're in the top third but there's no reason we can not be the number one state," he said.
When asked about the decline in student proficiency as a result of higher standards, Crandall said low SAGE scores are not the end of the world but instead are a new beginning.
"I promise you our SAGE scores will improve as this board focuses on three or four key things," he said.
Brad Smith's tenure as superintendent of the Ogden School District has been divisive, demonstrated by a number of controversial actions, as well as notable gains in student performance and high school graduation rates.
Smith was working as an attorney when he was elected in 2007 to the Ogden School Board, where he led an effort to bypass negotiations with the local teacher's union by offering individual contracts to educators.
After his selection as superintendent in 2011, Smith orchestrated a series of administrative shake-ups, shifted the district to a targeted focus on student data analysis and trimmed programs like reading coaches and library media specialists in an effort to close budget deficits.
During his interview, Smith was asked about reports that his managerial style had led to an "exodus" of quality teachers.
"It has," Smith said. "I own it."
Smith said he is prepared to accept criticisms in order to achieve his goals. Too often, he said, educators "elegantly admire a problem" without taking action.
He added that Ogden School District was the state's worst performing district for many years, but previous administrators failed to take steps to change that pattern.
"Our performance was not acceptable," he said. "It was not acceptable for my children, my personal children, and it was not acceptable for my 12,000 children. It just wasn't."
He said his experience leading the Ogden School District lends itself to the issues facing the statewide public education system. When SAGE scores are released this month, he said, there will be a temptation to feel embarrassed for a week or two before going back to old habits.
"My fear, and I believe it's a well-placed fear, is that we do nothing," he said. "I know that was, frankly, the tradition and history in my own district for years."
John Barge serves as Georgia's state school superintendent, an elected position. Rather than pursue a second term, Barge ran for governor of Georgia, building his campaign around the issue of education funding.
He ultimately fell short in the state's Republican primary election, but he said his campaign was a success because it forced Gov. Nathan Deal to confront the financial issues facing the state's school districts.
"I saw no attempt in that office to restore any level of funding to these districts, and we had districts that were literally about to go bankrupt," he said.
A recurring question during Barge's interview was "Why Utah?" to which Barge first responded, "Why not?" before adding that he saw a move to the state as an opportunity to reach out while remaining involved in education policy.
"The opportunities are not [in Georgia] for that state level and national level voice," he said.
Barge said that classroom instruction should be driven by student data. But he added that tests administered at the end of the year are an "autopsy," arriving too late to target student weaknesses.
"Data should be used," he said. "It should be as current as possible and it should be used to make those instructional decisions in the classroom."
Granite School District Superintendent Martin Bates is a career educator, having taught math and students with disabilities before shifting to district administrative roles in 1997.
He is the only finalist to have been employed as a Utah public school teacher.
"There is no greater profession than this," he said. "I love education. I love the kids and helping them."
Bates said part of his focus in Granite to improve the quality of teaching has been to hire the right people to work as school administrators.
He said its important to hire principals who share a vision of student achievement.
"When I visit schools I can tell in very little time what the climate is at the school and it's directly attributable to the principal," he said.
Bates said there is a need for greater career counseling in Utah schools and programs to help children discover their interests.
When asked about college-readiness, Bates said he has a broad definition of what college is, including technical training and other post-secondary programs, but he emphasized that a high school education alone is not enough for a person to support a family.
"You need more than a high school diploma in the 21st Century," he said.