Lockhart Left Off List of Finalists for State Superintendent

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, did not make the four finalists for the job of state superintendent of public schools, the State Board of Education announced Monday afternoon.

Lockhart surprised a number of Capitol Hill watchers when she admitted last month that she had put her name forward for the top staff job in Utah public schools.

The 15-member state board named as the four finalists John Barge, current Georgia state superintendent; Martin Bates, Granite School District superintendent; Rich Crandall, former director of Wyoming public schools; and Brad Smith, Ogden School District superintendent.

They will be interviewed by the board later this week, with a new superintendent named likely within 14 days.

Lockhart would have been a controversial appointment.

A UtahPolicy poll, conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, found recently that most Utahns didn’t want Lockhart to be named head of state schools.

Lockhart, by all accounts, has been a fine House speaker, now finishing up her second, two-year term in that post and retiring from the House at the end of this year.

But she is not a trained teacher nor education administrator.

She holds a degree in nursing and has sat on several hospital boards.

She has never been a certified teacher, has no advanced degree in education or public administration, has never sat on a local school district board.

Lockhart and the House chief deputy, Joe Pyrah, did not immediately return UtahPolicy calls for comment.

Lockhart has overseen the putting together of several state of Utah budgets, including the more than $1 billion public education budget.

And in the 2014 Legislature she shocked more than a few state politicians when she came forward with an aggressive public education reform package which included putting into the hands of every Utah student some kind of electronic device, like a tablet or laptop computer.

The program would have cost more than $300 million to fully implement, but only around $35 million for its initial first year.

But while Lockhart had backing of her own 61-member House GOP caucus, Senate Republicans balked.

GOP Senate leaders ended up offering Lockhart $15 million in one-time funding, but she declined, saying that effort wasn’t enough, and starting her program off badly would be worse than not starting it at all.

The State Board announced a rather odd process for picking a replacement for outgoing Superintendent Martell Menlove: After the applicants (not known how many) went through an initial of interviews, the board said it wouldn’t make their names public until three days before the final four would be interviewed for the top job – giving any applicant time to withdraw his or her name and so not be publicly identified as seeking the job.

But Lockhart’s name leaked out weeks ago, and she admitted that she had applied for the job.

State law only says that the superintendent must be highly qualified, it does not say he or she must have been a teacher, school administrator or have an advanced degree in public or government administration.

The Lockhart application was a sideline to an ongoing debate inside the Legislature on how best to elected State School Board members.

The current bifurcated process was recently struck down by a federal judge. So clearly something new must be put in place by a future Legislature.

The current system has a citizen committee interviewing applicants to the 15 elected positions, all by geographic districts across the state.

That committee sends up three or four names to the governor, who then picks two to go on the November general election ballot.

Some lawmakers want to have direct elections of school board members, with one group wanting them to be partisan (the candidates would run through the Republican and Democratic party processes), while others want candidates elected in a non-partisan election, with a primary election whittling all candidates down to two for the general election ballot.

In his poll, Jones found that only 25 percent of Utahns wanted Lockhart appointed superintendent of public education, while 52 percent opposed her nomination.

Among her own Republican Party, 28 percent said Lockhart should be appointed, but 48 percent said no.

As might be expected, even more Democrats and political independents opposed Lockhart’s appointment.

Lockhart has, over the last two general sessions, been a critic of GOP Gov. Gary Herbert. In her 2014 opening address to the House, she called Herbert an “inaction figure.”

And she has steadfastly opposed Herbert’s “Healthy Utah” Medicaid expansion program.

All this has led to speculation that Lockhart might challenge Herbert in his 2016 re-election.

Lockhart’s change of direction in seeking the state superintendent post has led some to believe that she figured she couldn’t beat Herbert for the 2016 GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Or at least that she would stay in the superintendent job until 2020, when she could then run for an anticipated open governor’s seat with great on-the-job experience in public school administration, perhaps leading the state in significant education reform.

The State Board of Education members have had significant challenges lately, with two top administrators resigning their posts and intra-board squabbles bubbling over into the public.

Lockhart won’t be in the 2015 Legislature, but the board rejecting her early in the superintendent replacement process could lead to any number of proposed bills that would change not only the board’s election process, but other board powers as well.