Former head of SD university system selected as Nebraska education commissioner
OMAHA — The Nebraska Board of Education looked north for its next education commissioner Friday, but not before exposing board divisions over his selection and how he was chosen.
A 5-3 majority chose Brian Maher, former executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents and a former superintendent in Kearney, Neb.; Utica, Neb.; and Sioux Falls, S.D.
Friday’s split vote is an oddity for the State Board, which has approved most of its recent commissioners unanimously, including the last two, the department confirmed.
Maher’s supporters — Patsy Koch Johns, Lisa Fricke, Patti Gubbels, Jacquelyn Morrison and Deb Neary — applauded his experience leading schools and education bureaucracies.
“You could see that he was very, very experienced,” Koch Johns said. “Very careful and very calm … that’s something in Nebraska we need right now.”
Neary praised Maher for saying during his interview that he would ask each of the board members to refer him to five members of their communities that he should hear from.
Morrison said she was pleased to hear that he considers feedback one of the most important parts of the teaching process. She said she values that push for improvement.
Board members voting no — Elizabeth Tegtmeier, Kirk Penner and Sherry Jones — said they preferred a different candidate and questioned the fairness of the hiring process.
Much of their criticism centered on questions about the potential influence of Steve Joel, the McPherson Jacobson consultant, who is a former Lincoln Public Schools superintendent.
“I find it interesting that this candidate is a longtime colleague of one of our consultants,” Tegtmeier said. Maher knows Joel from his time as a Nebraska superintendent.
The State Board revised its consulting contract with Joel’s firm to make sure he attended the interviews and hiring sessions this week. He sat in the front row Friday.
Frustration with interview process
Penner said he didn’t like how the commissioner-hiring process limited the number and types of questions that individually elected board members could ask of potential candidates.
He said he had to get permission from Joel to ask a question, and no one on the board asked the candidates how they would address the state’s shortage of teachers.
“If we can’t ask the questions my constituents want to know, then we miss the mark,” he said. “To have to send and get approved questions is bizarre.”
Fricke said the board had to narrow down its questions to 19 to fit the window of an hour and 45 minutes per candidate.
Morrison, who helped pick the finalists, defended the board’s processes. She said government hiring, while it may seem convoluted, tries to keep the process fairer.
“We do it so all the candidates get asked the same questions,” she said. “There are also legalities in what we can and cannot ask, so we had to vet them (the questions).”
Penner, Tegtmeier and Sherry Jones are all new board members. They were among four candidates who ran as a conservative slate last November.
The board spent much of the meeting discussing the strengths of all three of its finalists: Maher, Melissa Poloncic, superintendent of the Douglas County West Community Schools and Summer Stephens, superintendent for Fallon, Nevada’s Churchill County School District.
The board directed its president, Gubbels, to negotiate a contract with Maher and expects to vote on a contract during the April 14 meeting in Lincoln. He would succeed Matthew Blomstedt, who resigned as education commissioner in January. Deputy Education Commissioner Deborah Frison is serving as interim commissioner.
During Thursday’s finalist interviews, Maher, who recently resigned from his post with the South Dakota Board of Regents, told the board that he believes one of the most important skills he has learned is that communication is a two-way street. He said he listens.
One of his first goals for the department would be trying to figure out what’s standing between teachers and teaching and to make sure the department helps remove those obstacles.
Maher’s son, Brett, was an all-conference kicker and punter in the early 2010s for the University of Nebraska. He kicked last season for the National Football League’s Dallas Cowboys.
This story was originally published by the Nebraska Examiner, which like South Dakota Searchlight is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: [email protected]. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.