Questions surrounds Utah’s new top education official
After a highly publicized search for a new state superintendent, the Utah State Board of Education has found its man. On Friday it handed the job to Brad Smith, who has served since 2011 as superintendent of the Ogden School District.
Local superintendents met the news with relief the position has been filled, but also with a dose of caution, as they acknowledged that controversy surrounded Smith during much of his tenure in Ogden.
After a period of upheaval in the state office — beginning with the abrupt resignations of former State Superintendent Martell Menlove and Deputy Superintendent Brenda Hales in August — both Park City School District Superintendent Ember Conley and North Summit School District Superintendent Jerre Holmes were pleased that public education in the state finally has a permanent leader. They hope it offers the education system some much-needed stability.
"It’s been a very hard transition time," Conley said. " Having a leader that is able to oversee the broad scope of the goals of the State Office of Education, it’s a very needed leadership position."
However, there is also uncertainty surrounding Smith’s appointment. Smith, who practiced law before taking over in Ogden, does not have a background as an educator. Holmes said that made him a surprising choice to lead the state’s public education.
"I would prefer that whoever takes that spot has an understanding of what teachers are going through, what principals are going through," he said. "Without him having that experience, I’m certainly not saying that he can’t manage it, but for the state School Board to go a different direction is, I think, a message to educators."
Conley acknowledged that some have concerns about Smith’s background, though she added that she trusts the State Board of Education to have made the right choice.
"I think it would be very difficult for me to run a public school district without having the public teaching experience, the administration experience," Conley said. "But that’s not to say that his experience of where he’s come from is not valuable, or even what the state office needs."
Smith defends his qualifications, saying he has the characteristics necessary to jumpstart education in the state, such as leadership, a single-minded focus on student achievement and a vision for the future. He said finding a leader with those qualifications is more important for the state’s education system than hiring someone solely for their education credentials.
"If it’s credential-driven, you’re going to get a certain type of person that is always reinforcing the system that exists," he said. "That’s the nature of a large organization. For some things, I think that’s probably very good. But I think for many institutions, including education, that is a recipe to become sterile and stale."
Smith’s time in Ogden has been controversial for other reasons, as well. He raised the ire of many in Ogden by cutting the jobs of several reading aides and library media specialists in an attempt to save money. Additionally, he acknowledges that several Ogden teachers transferred elsewhere because they were unhappy with the direction the district was headed under his leadership.
For Holmes, that’s a huge concern.
"It’s just so easy to be an armchair quarterback, to be outside the boundaries of a school and say, ‘This is what teachers ought to do,’" Holmes said, noting he doesn’t know the specifics of what led teachers to leave. "But when you’re in the trenches, I think what you’ll find on most occasions is people are trying to do what’s best for kids."
Smith said that some teachers departing was an unfortunate byproduct of changing the status quo — something he believes was necessary to raise Ogden’s performance. According to a press release from the Utah State Board of Education, Ogden’s performance was among the worst in the state when Smith took over but saw stark improvements in math, English and graduation rates.
"The simple fact of the matter is the system in place in the Ogden School District in 2011 produced bad results," Smith said, noting changes he made included requiring teachers to have lesson plans, providing more time for teacher collaboration and altering the curriculum in some subjects, such as math. "We have to take ownership of that. If we want a different result, we have to do something different than what produced the prior result. If we can do that and people in the system can change and produce a different result, hallelujah — I’m all for it. If they can’t, that’s regrettable, but the system has to change to meet the needs of our kids."
Neither Conley nor Holmes have formed a close relationship with Smith since he took over in Ogden, despite the face district superintendents throughout the state hold monthly meetings. Conley described the relationships she has formed with many of the other superintendents as close and "collegial."
Despite not knowing him well, Conley said Smith seemed well-respected by his peers. Holmes said it will be important for Smith to engender positive working relationships with the state’s district superintendents, whom he expects to be open to new ideas.
"The thing we have to do is be professional," Holmes said. "This is the decision that has been made and we have to give him a chance."
One of the largest things Smith can do to ensure he forms relationships with educators, Holmes said, is strike a balance between serving the State Board of Education while understanding the needs of district superintendents.
"The process works much better when school districts are on board with the state office," Holmes said. "So I guess that becomes his biggest challenge.
"I think he can count on 41 superintendents being professional. But he’s got to do his part, too."
Just as there was in Ogden, Smith expects there to be vigorous debate about his leadership. He said he welcomes legitimate disagreement and believes that’s the best way for strong ideas to emerge. But he also hopes to be judged by his ideas and what he has accomplished, rather than by any preconceived notions about him.
"What I don’t like," he said, "and what I think is intellectually dishonest, is when someone pretends to have a principled objection, but it becomes simply an ad hominem attack: ‘Oh, he really can’t have any good ideas because, after all, he’s just a lawyer and not an educator.’ That’s just crap and not legitimate thinking."
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