Head hunt on hold

Thursday, August 09
BOSTON — Gov. Deval L. Patrick's slow-moving bid to restructure the Department of Education has cost the state at least one qualified candidate to replace current Education Commissioner David Driscoll.

The delay could not only jack up the price of the search, but Patrick has also left the company charged with finding a replacement in the lurch, said Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE).

"There was tremendous interest in the Massachusetts job initially, and at least three people called me asking to apply for the job," Welburn said in a telephone interview. "I've lost all of that momentum."

The Massachusetts Board of Education signed a $50,000 contract with the Virginia-based NASBE to find a replacement for current Commissioner David Driscoll earlier this year. Driscoll will step down after nearly 10 years as Education Commissioner on Aug. 31 to be replaced by acting Commissioner Jeffrey Nellhaus.

A NASBE member flew into Boston in May and met with a group comprised of members of the Legislature, the education community and Patrick's education chief Dana Mohler-Faria, Welburn said.

The next step was to meet with Patrick to get a sense of what he is looking for in a new commissioner, but Welburn hasn't heard from the governor's office since then.

"We have not gotten any sense as to when we will meet with the governor," Welburn said. "We're just on hold until we do."

Heidi Guarino, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said she has kept NASBE informed.

"The commissioner search is on hold. We've communicated with NASBE about why it's on hold and been very clear about the status of things," Guarino said. "In the meantime, Nellhaus is going to take over and we're going to move forward as planned."

Welburn said Christopher Anderson, chairman of the Board of Education, contacted her recently, but Patrick staffers have not.

"We need to ensure that the search process and timeline allow us the greatest opportunity to find the most qualified candidates who share the board's and the governor's vision for the future of education in the Commonwealth," said Patrick spokeswoman Rebecca Deusser in a written statement.

Members of the state Board of Education, who are supposed to make the final hiring decision, are also sitting on their hands until Patrick makes a move.

"I'm not happy about waiting, but it's out of my hands. It's been put on that back burner until the governor figures out what he's going to do. I'm just as concerned as everyone else is. We need to get a commissioner as soon as possible," said Thomas Fortmann, a member of the BOE appointed by Gov. Mitt Romney last year.

Driscoll's position generated so much interest that three candidates called Welburn to ask about the job, and three more candidates whom she had called about other jobs asked to apply for the Massachusetts position. Welburn would not name the candidates, but said one of them has found another job.

"I know he took another position, and he would have been a good fit," Welburn said. "I was looking forward to this (search) — I thought this was going to be easy, but it ended up that the (other searches) went off without a hitch."

NASBE is a nonprofit national organization meant to bolster local state education boards. The group, which is used by 24 states across the country, has already helped boards in Kansas, Connecticut and Colorado hire education commissioners this year. Colorado also had a new gubernatorial administration.

The search in Massachusetts is one of the longest she's ever been through.

"None of them had plans to radically overhaul the education governance, however," Welburn said.

Patrick is considering creating a new head of education, which would oversee the education commissioner, the early education chief, and the chancellor of higher education.

The commissioner search is on hold until Patrick makes a decision about how he will proceed, although he has no legal authority to pick the commissioner. The delay could render useless the in-state focus group interviews conducted by a NASBE member in May by the time Patrick announces his governance structure changes or decides to move ahead with the search.

"I don't even know how valid the interviews are anymore," Welburn said. "That has me more concerned than anything: That means coming up there and redoing all the things we've already done."

The state, which has already pledged $50,000 for the search, will have to pick up the bill to fly board members into the state again, put them up in hotels and pay for their meals.

The governor has historically had a small role in picking the education commissioner. Gov. Paul Cellucci interviewed three candidates the board of education had selected during the last search and chose Jim Peyser, but members didn't go with his suggestion and, instead, picked Driscoll.

Welburn did say that getting a sense of what the governor wants is vital to picking the right candidate.

"One thing I learned a long time ago is that we don't want to proceed without sense of what the governor is interested in," Welburn said. "We think one of the most critical components of a good search is to get sense of where the political players are."


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