Government and Human Resources

Michigan names state superintendent

May 15, 2019
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LANSING — Michigan's Board of Education has chosen Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Michael Rice to lead the Department of Education, citing his track record of closing the "achievement gap" for minority students and his experience as an educator both in and outside the state.

Rice, 56, won the state superintendent job on a 5-3 vote last eek. The board conducted closing interviews with him and two other finalists before making the decision.

Casandra Ulbrich, the board president, pointed to Rice's "stellar reputation" in Michigan.

"The combination of his experience and how well he did in the interviews really kind of put him a step above," she said.

The other final candidates were Randy Liepa, the superintendent of the Wayne Regional Educational Service Agency who won support from three board members, and Jeanice Swift, the superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools.

Rice has led the Kalamazoo district for a dozen years. He previously was superintendent of district in New Jersey. He began his career as a teacher in the Washington, D.C., district and has a bachelor's degree in psychology from Yale University and a master's and doctorate in public administration from New York University.

"I don't think there's any surprise to an in-state candidate what we're facing here in the state of Michigan, how far we have to go to get back up to the position that we want to be in," Ulbrich said. She added, though, that it was important to also select someone who "can bring some perspective from other states, (who) might have seen things we're yet to see and experienced them."

Rice will take over an education system that is lagging. Fourth- and eighth-graders rank low nationally in reading and trail in math, and there are large gaps in achievement between white and minority students. The Education Department wants Michigan to be a "top 10" state within 10 years.

The superintendent runs the department and is a member of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's cabinet. But the person is hired by and reports to the independently elected education board, which now has six Democrats and two Republicans.

Five of the six Democrats backed Rice, while two Republicans and one Democrat supported Liepa.

One Rice supporter, Pamela Pugh, said "he pushes to get the urgent issues addressed." She credited him for being "very courageous" in 2017 by speaking out in the Legislature after the state threatened to close up to 38 chronically low-performing schools, including two in Kalamazoo. Then-Gov. Rick Snyder's administration backed off and instead pursued "partnership" agreements with affected districts.

Michigan has had an interim superintendent, Sheila Alles, for a year since the death of Brian Whiston. Rice is expected to start the job on July 1 and make $216,000 a year - unchanged from Whiston's final salary and Alles' pay. Typically the board signs a three-year contract with the option to extend it by an additional year annually on a rolling basis.

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