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State Ed board selects Whiston as its superintendent choice

March 23, 2015

After a lengthy day of final interviews and tense deliberations, the State Board of Education (SBE) voted Wednesday to make Dearborn Superintendent Brian Whiston the next state superintendent.

Whiston beat out fellow finalists Vickie Markavitch and Scott Menzel. Markavitch is superintendent of Oakland Schools, the intermediate school district (ISD) of Oakland County, and Menzel is superintendent of Washtenaw ISD.

The selection came after spirited deliberation among SBE members, who overcame a deadlock among majority Democrats between Markavitch and Whiston, as well as Republicans temporarily abstaining, who initially backed Menzel.

The final vote was 7-1, with Republican Eileen Weiser voting no. The motion to advance Whiston as the choice was made by Republican Richard Zeile — who had previously backed Menzel — and supported by newly elected Democrat Pamela Pugh Smith, who supported Markavitch until just before the end.

“Since the direction is clear, I think it is true that we need to come together and work for the success of our new superintendent and the Michigan Department of Education (MDE),” Zeile said.

Whiston, reached by phone after the decision, said “I’m very honored, I’m looking forward to working with the board and the Governor and the Legislature to move the education agenda forward. I think this is a wonderful opportunity and I’m ready to go to work.”

Whiston is likely best known in Lansing as the former lobbyist for the Oakland ISD. Before that, he worked for the county’s road commission, served as a legislative aide and spent time as a school board member.

“I think it’s unique that I have 17 years of Lansing experience, 17 years as a school board member, then 18 years in education, so I think that unique mix in my resume . . . helped me stand out,” Whiston said.

Whiston had less teaching experience than the other candidates, he taught at Wayne State University for a spell.

But what most SBE members repeatedly touted about Whiston was his experience in Lansing and working with the Legislature, as well as having a good reputation with both sides of the aisle.

That’s something most SBE members put value on during the superintendent search. The board is controlled 6-2 by Democrats and has seen its policies thwarted by a Republican Legislature with sometimes differing views on education.

SBE President and Democrat John Austin said in a statement that Whiston “has a real facility and ability to work effectively with all of the stakeholders, the field of educators, the Legislature, the Governor, and the State Board, as we work together to improve education outcomes in Michigan.”

The SBE did final interviews with all three candidates this morning. Members, saying they would ask “tough questions,” brought up concerns that had been raised about the candidates.

For Whiston, he was grilled on his expense reports from more than 10 years ago that he incurred as a lobbyist.

Whiston’s answers were similar to what he told MIRS: Taking legislators out to meals is the normal course of business for lobbyists, and he admitted that some of the expenses were out of line. But he said he learned lessons and it shouldn’t reflect on his professional judgment.

Once deliberations started, SBE members were asked to name their first and second choice candidates. After they voted, Whiston received six total votes, Markavitch received five total votes and Menzel three total votes.

Austin tried to steer the conversation to focus just on Markavitch and Whiston, based on their total votes. But supporters of Menzel – initially Republicans Zeile and Weiser – pointed out that in terms of first-choice votes, Menzel and Markavitch tied for the most, with three. Whiston had two first-choice votes.

The other supporter of Menzel at first was Democrat Lupe Ramos-Montigny. Zeile motioned to have the SBE continue discussions focused on Menzel and Markavitch. It failed 5-3.

After more discussion, the board decided to do a single-vote tally to see which candidate they wanted in the discussion. After that, Whiston had five votes, Markavitch had five votes and Menzel had three.

Austin again tried to move the conversation toward just Whiston and Markavitch. But Weiser told the board she didn’t intend to participate in further voting, saying she had concerns about choosing between the two.

“Both of these people are very good candidates, but I also anticipate that each of them has a weakness to them that would either put us out of federal compliance within a short period of time or cause problems for us,” she said, referring to overseeing the MDE’s responsibilities. But Weiser said that whoever was chosen, she would work with that person.

The SBE members were again asked for their first preference candidate. After a vote, there was a deadlock: Markavitch and Whiston each got three votes, as Democrats were split between the two. Ramos-Montigny crossed over to support Whiston, switching from Menzel.

Republicans Zeile and Weiser abstained, leaving the board two votes shy of getting to the five votes necessary to pass a motion.

After a break in the action, SBE Democrats Michelle Fecteau and Kathleen Straus came over to support Whiston, as they had previously backed Markavitch. Smith remained a Markavitch supporter, but nevertheless the board had five votes to make Whiston superintendent.

After a plea from Austin to get the Republicans on board, it was Zeile who proposed the motion to advance Whiston. Smith quickly supported it.

When asked if she supported the motion because her Republican colleague nominated Whiston, Smith said after the meeting, “Well, yes . . . partially. I did want to see our Republican counterparts come on over to the other side, but definitely I wanted to show that although Vickie was my first choice, that I could definitely work with Brian Whiston.”

Absent from endorsing any candidates was Karen McPhee, Gov. Rick Snyder ‘s incoming education advisor. She said the Governor did not have a preferred candidate, so she didn’t name any names.

But McPhee did tell the SBE they should pick a candidate who could build relationships and re-energize a common vision around education.

In the previous round of interviews, McPhee did weigh in. As the SBE pared down its six semifinalists, she said at the time that Menzel, Whiston and Massachusetts schools official Alan Ingram had been “uniquely qualified” for the position.

Support for Markavitch among the SBE, who critics said was seen as a polarizing figure and not able to work with Republicans, had risen among Democrats after Snyder arranged to move the state’s school reform office away from MDE and the SBE via an executive order.

Austin said Snyder’s move changed several Democratic votes as they considered their finalists last week, as votes shifted from Ingram to Markavitch. But Whiston had consistently received high vote totals from SBE members throughout the deliberation process last week.  

Asked if he watched the finalist deliberations play out this afternoon, Whiston said, “No I didn’t . . . I couldn’t put myself through that.” 

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