Applicants are scarce for the state’s top education job

With almost half the states looking for A-list candidates to fill vacancies in their top education positions so far this year, Connecticut’s national search has generated little interest since Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan resigned abruptly nearly five months ago.

“We were hoping we would get a larger range of applications,” said State Board of Education Chairman Allan B. Taylor.

Fewer then 10 candidates have applied to become Connecticut’s next education commissioner in the almost five months the position has been vacant. This low turnout has led officials to extend the application deadline by two months.

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Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan (r) with State Board of Education chairman Allan Taylor in December during his last meeting

Connecticut is not alone is experiencing such low interest in a vital job. In Florida, a professional search firm found not a single applicant for the top education job in its first month.  A spokesman for the Florida Department of Education said in an email this week that three people have since applied; they hope to receive more inquiries in the next six days, which is the application deadline.

Chris Minnich at the Council of Chief State School Officers said there are a few reasons for such low interest.

“This is a huge turnover year for us. We’ve never had anything like it,” said the senior membership director for the non-profit group representing the nations top education leaders. Twenty-four states have had their top leaders step down in the last six months; five positions remain vacant.

“These top-caliber candidates certainly have their pick” of jobs to chose from, said Taylor. “My mind is still reeling around no one applying in Florida.”

Some suggest Florida’s search is hampered by a state law that requires that applicants’ names be made public; Connecticut has no such law. But Taylor said he intends to release names when the board narrows the list to a few candidates.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he is looking for the next education commissioner to be a “proven change agent.” He has said he wants to reform teacher tenure to give schools flexibility when facing layoff decisions, reform the funding formula for education aid to towns, transfer responsibility of the state’s vocational-technical schools, reform early childhood education, and overcome the achievement gap between poor students and their more affluent peers.

Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said all these expectations may be exactly what is deterring applicants from coming forward.

“These jobs have become very political and everybody has an idea how to do your job better then you do. There just aren’t as many people willing to take that job anymore,” he said.

The stress from the political scene in Connecticut apparently led McQuillan to unexpectedly resign last December, following a very public outburst. George A. Coleman, who has been at the department for years, has been named the interim commissioner, but he has indicated he is not a candidate for permanent appointment.

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The state recruited in Education Week in March and April

There is also the issue of pay, said Hunter.

“These top jobs are harder, more demanding and they don’t pay that well,” he said.

A survey conducted in 2009 by CCSSO placed Connecticut’s then-commissioner McQuillan’s base salary of $180,353 slightly above average among the 40 states responding.

The pay might be competitive with that of other top state education officials, but is not necessarily appealing when compared to the salaries of local school superintendents, Hunter said.

“Often, for better pay you can be a superintendent in a local district,” he said.

Some superintendents in the state earn as much as $280,000, according to the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. The average pay is $165,000.

“The salary is really not that competitive when you are talking about going from managing one district to the whole state,” said Joe Cirasuolo, executive director of CAPSS. He also said the number of employees at the State Department of Education has significantly downsized in recent years, which means the commissioner will have less expertise to help get the job done. “The ability of those department to meet the challenges facing education have not kept pace.”

Whatever the reason for the less-then-expected number of applicants, Taylor said the delay will “certainly push back” the filling of the position. In February, a spokesman for the department said he expected the job would be filled this month.

“The hope is to get the right person in place as soon as possible. We certainly are hoping more people will apply,” Taylor said.

The state has not hired a search firm to help fill the job, but Taylor said he plans on discussing that with the board soon.

“I don’t think the issue is people didn’t know we were searching to fill this position. People know we’re out there,” he said.

The SBOE did run a weekly advertisement in the national publication Education Week in March and April seeking applicants. The ad reads the candidate must be able to lead “large-scale change”.

Rep. Andy Fleischmann, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee, said it may be taking longer then expected, but he just hopes the extended application deadline results in more people applying.

“This is a department in need of some rejuvenation. We’ve fallen behind other states in real reform,” the Democrat from West Hartford said. “It’s time for us to sell that Connecticut is ready for reform to attract A-list applicants.”