Delisle to take over ODE in interesting times

When Deborah Delisle takes the reins at the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) she will face a long list of challenges, not the least of which is getting to know a very large set of new bosses.

Delisle, the superintendent of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools, was the unanimous pick of the State Board of Education to become the next state superintendent of public instruction (see here). She will start her new job no later than Dec. 1 and replace Susan Tave Zelman, who is leaving her post at the end of the month to become a senior vice president at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Delisle, however, may not get to know many of the current board members before a large number of them leave. The panel that hired her will not be the one she works for three months from now as more than half of the 19 state board seats could change hands by January (see here).

There's also the governor. Though Gov. Ted Strickland's chief of staff was a member of the search committee and Strickland had glowing things to say about Delisle after her appointment, the governor has not officially given up his intent to effectively takeover ODE by appointing a cabinet-level director of education. Although the superintendent doesn't work for the governor, he's a definite factor. Strickland forced Zelman to leave her post after nearly 10 years in the job and Ohioans will be wondering how Delisle gets along with him. Even if Strickland does abandon his proposal to put in place an education czar, he is still moving forward with a comprehensive overhaul of the state's public-education and school-finance system. Until it is unveiled, that much-anticipated plan will be the elephant in every room Delisle enters.

Internally at ODE, an early order of business for the new superintendent will be replacing recently departed ODE leadership, including accountability czar Mitch Chester-now the Massachusetts' commissioner of education-and school-finance guru Paolo DeMaria-who left for the Board of Regents in August. She'll also have to convince key staffers to stay on as well as manage a large agency with 600-plus employees during tough economic times. There is likely to be little new spending, so introducing a new program will mean eliminating or scaling back an existing one, and further staffing cuts are possible.

All of this isn't to say that Delisle is sure to fail. Far from it. She has a record of success as a district superintendent. She has seen the good, bad, and ugly that result from changes to state education policy and programs. She's been around the Buckeye State long enough to understand the politics and know the key players, so she ought to be able to hit the ground running. We at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute wish the new state superintendent the best of luck. And if she is looking for ideas about where to take education in Ohio, we have some suggestions (see here).

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