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Board trims commissioner field to two; background checks next for unidentified pair

By Brad Hughes
Special to KyForward

It will be another two to three weeks before Kentuckians know who is to be the state’s sixth education commissioner, but leaders of the state board of education expressed confidence Saturday that either of the two remaining candidates will be a winning choice for the commonwealth.

After “give-and-take conversations” Friday evening and Saturday morning in Lexington, members of the Kentucky Board of Education took less than 90 seconds in public session to reduce the applicants to replace retiring Education Commissioner Terry Holliday to “candidate 8921” and “candidate 5379.”

Kentucky Board of Education Chairman Roger Marcum (far left) reads a motion Saturday to proceed with deep background checks on two final candidates for commissioner of education. Waiting to vote on the measure are KBE members (left to right) David Karem, Debbie Cook, Mary Gwen Wheeler and Vice chairman Jonathan Parrent. (KSBA photo)

Kentucky Board of Education Chairman Roger Marcum, far left, reads a motion Saturday to proceed with deep background checks on two final candidates for commissioner of education. Waiting to vote on the measure are KBE members, from left, David Karem, Debbie Cook, Mary Gwen Wheeler and Vice Chairman Jonathan Parrent. (KSBA photo)

Department of Education staff will work with the board’s search consultant, Greenwood/Asher and Associates, to hire “an appropriate entity to conduct in-depth background checks” on both individuals.

While KBE Chairman Roger Marcum didn’t identify those still under consideration, he and KBE Vice Chairman Jonathan Parrent said the search process has put Kentucky in a win-win situation.

“We had an unbelievably thorough, great discussion about extremely well-qualified candidates,” said Parrent, a Madisonville community college executive. “They are both outstanding professionals who I know will move Kentucky forward.”

Marcum said, “I’m very optimistic that once Kentuckians see who we’ve selected, and that either one could do a great job of leading the foundation that we’ve built and the work that remains to be done, that this will be the right person to lead us where we need to go with education in Kentucky.”

Marcum, a former superintendent, said he hoped the KBE will meet within two to three weeks and formally offer the job to one of the two candidates.

Holliday retires on Monday after six years as commissioner. Associate Commissioner and General Counsel Kevin C. Brown becomes interim commissioner on Sept. 1 to serve until the new leader takes over. Marcum said Saturday he still hopes that will happen within a 60- to 90-day window after the position is offered and accepted.

The five interviewed over the weekend were (see full profiles here):

• Kathleen M. Airhart

• Buddy Berry

• Christopher A. Koch

• Lloyd D. Martin

• Stephen L. Pruitt

More background checks “to be sure”

When the KBE launched its search for Holliday’s successor in June, more than one member made points about wanting the most thorough process possible. In 2007, the state board hired Illinois superintendent Barbara Erwin, but she resigned just before starting work after resume errors and leadership issues were made public.

Marcum said the deeper background checks, which will cost between $8,000 and $10,000, and the choice to abandon a goal of hiring someone before Holliday’s retirement date, are solid decisions.

“We’re taking that extra time because we want to be sure that we’ve properly vetted the candidates. It’s obvious that we’re getting closer and closer to the decision. We want to make sure we’ve done everything we can do to ensure that we’ve checked out the background of the folks we are considering,” he said.

“This background check will be more extensive than what we’ve done on any of the other applicants. There is some expense to that and we didn’t want to spend that extra money until we knew we were really serious about these candidates,” Marcum said. “With these two people, we feel that way.”

Two stood out, many offered input

Out of the five finalists interviewed, the two moving forward “separated themselves” from the others, according to Marcum.

“That’s clear. We have two really strong candidates left for the board to consider,” he said.

Since the Department of Education released the identities of finalists Thursday afternoon, Marcum said KBE members have heard plenty about the applicants under consideration.

“We got a lot of feedback, more than I ever expected,” he said. “It started soon after the press release. From that point on, it was constant – either text messages, emails and phone calls. That tells me how concerned the entire Kentucky community – not just the education community – is about this process. The feedback has been very helpful. And as a result, the board is going to be able to arrive at a really good decision for Kentucky’s kids. That’s been our goal all along.

“I am confident when we make our final decision, it will be a unanimous decision,” he said. “My goal in leading this process has been to make sure that we are in full support of whoever we hire as our next commissioner, and I’m confident that whoever is selected of those final two will have the support of the full board.”

Marcum said the upcoming special KBE meeting will be in its normal meeting place in the Department for Education’s office in Frankfort. He expects the meeting will be webcast live as is the KBE’s practice when meetings are conducted there.

Brad Hughes is director of member support for the Kentucky School Boards Association and writes for its eNews service.

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