State Board of Education sees turnover in recent months

DOVER — The State Board of Education has a new look.

Five of its seven voting members were newly confirmed by the Senate this year, including three approved at the end of June, and more change is coming.

The board has been searching for an executive director since Donna Johnson left the post in April, and legislation awaiting action by the governor would add two non-voting members.

The board was defunded by lawmakers in the spring of 2017, although the Office of Management and Budget used contingency funds to keep it running.

This year, money for the group was allocated in the budget, with legislators approving just over $229,000 for its operations.

The board consists of seven members appointed by the governor, as well as the secretary of education, who acts as the body’s executive secretary and cannot vote.

The group is responsible for advising the secretary of education, aiding local district boards of education and granting final approval for charter schools, among other duties.

It has come under fire from some legislators, however, who feel it has overstepped its bounds at times. This year, the Joint Legislative Oversight and Sunset Committee drafted legislation that adds as non-voting members a former Delaware teacher of the year and a current high school student and requires the body to rotate its monthly meetings among counties rather than convene solely in Dover.

The bill was opposed by some board members in April but ultimately passed the Legislature without opposition. Gov. John Carney’s office did not respond to an email asking what the governor planned to do with the bill.

The measure also defines the executive director duties, essentially limiting the scope of the duties handled by the board’s only full-time employee. Ms. Johnson, who began in the position in August 2011, was paid almost $92,000 in 2017.

Administrative assistant John Wolgamot said the board is still searching for a replacement and he does not know when someone will be selected. Board members working with the Department of Education interview candidates and then make a recommendation to the secretary of education, who ultimately passes the name on to human resources for a background check, Mr. Wolgamot said.

In addition to Ms. Johnson, who stepped down to join the Washington D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the local education agency for the nation’s capital city, five other board members have departed over the 12 months. That includes board President Dennis Loftus, who held the role for only a year.

Current President Whitney Sweeney was selected by the governor at the end of June.

Dr. Loftus clashed with legislators on the Joint Legislative Oversight and Sunset Committee in April, questioning why lawmakers wanted the board to meet throughout the state when the General Assembly always gathers in Dover and in response being accused by Sen. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, of being “disrespectful.”

Dr. Loftus did not respond to requests for comment this week, and the governor’s office did not answer an email questioning why there had been so much turnover.

Despite all vacancies having been filled more than a month ago, the board’s website displayed the names of only four voting members as recently as Tuesday.

Mr. Wolgamot said there had been some technical difficulties in updating the site, and within seven hours of a reporter inquiring about the omission, the names of the new members had been added.

In addition to Ms. Sweeney and Secretary of Education Susan Bunting, the board currently consists of Vice President Nina Lou Bunting, Audrey J. Noble, Terry M. Whittaker, Wali W. Rushdan II, Candice Fifer and Vincent Lofink. Its next meeting is Aug. 16.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.


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