Lawmakers and governors often talk about education as a top priority. For almost a quarter of a century, Ohio’s governors have wanted more control over a panel that oversees education for the state’s 1.6 million students and the top official it hires.
All that came up in a debate over how much to pay the state superintendent at this month's Ohio Board of Education meeting.
The state school board meets every month for two days of marathon sessions on policy, business, curriculum, teachers’ licenses and other personnel actions – and this month, that included a raise for state school superintendent Paolo DeMaria.
John Hagan, who was elected to the state school board last year, opposed the idea.
“I polled a handful of board members – five – and five members would like the superintendent to end his service to the board,” Hagan said.
That didn’t happen: DeMaria ended up getting a raise. His salary is now at $210,000, which is above the national average for state superintendents but far down the list of the highest paid state employees.
Five elected school board members voted against DeMaria’s raise, while 11 others, both elected and appointed, supported it.
“At any given time, I just assume that kind of 25% of the constituency wants the head of the superintendent regardless of who they are, and that’s like, best case scenario," said Eric Poklar, who was appointed to the board in 2017 by then-Gov. John Kasich.
“He has a board of 19, but he has a governor who can make his life hell at any time,” added Nick Owens, one of the board’s 11 elected members. “He’s got a Senate president or a Speaker of the House who can make his life hell at any time. He’s got a Senate chairman…”
Owens trailed off amid laughter, which came from Senate Education Committee chair Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering), who is a non-voting member of the board.
DeMaria was hired by a unanimous state school board in 2016, becoming the fourth superintendent since 2011.
Governors don’t appoint superintendents, and that’s been a bone of contention for some governors who have wanted more control over the board and the superintendent.
But governors can have a lot of influence on who is hired as superintendent, because there are eight members of the state school board appointed by governors, thanks to the budget signed in 1995 by the late Gov. George Voinovich. The policy was later reenacted and signed into law by Gov. Bob Taft in 2000.
In 2008, Gov. Ted Strickland argued that he and lawmakers deserved more. He noted in his State of the State speech that year that lawmakers had given the governor the power to appoint a chancellor for higher education, and he said the time had come to do the same for K-12 education.
“The most important duty of the state should not be overseen by an unwieldy department with splintered accountability," Strickland said.
Strickland suggested a director of Department of Education, who would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, with the state school board and its superintendent in advisory roles.
But the Democratic governor’s idea wasn’t widely embraced by Republican lawmakers. The man who is now the Chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education, Randy Gardner, was a Republican representative from Bowling Green in 2008.
“I don't call it a power grab because I'm trying to work with this governor. I'm not going to call it that, but I'm going to call it not the right way to go for education in this state," Gardner said in 2008.
Strickland’s idea for a Department of Education director didn’t go anywhere. But the governor remained critical of then-Superintendent Susan Zelman, and she resigned a few months later. Zelman had served for 10 years, and those who followed her during John Kasich’s eight years as governor served only around two years before leaving.
DeMaria, a veteran of the Ohio Department of Education before he was hired as superintendent, has been on the job for more than three years. And while Gov. Mike DeWine says he has confidence in DeMaria, he notes he didn’t hire him.
“This is a person who is not appointed by the governor. He sits with the governor’s cabinet, but unlike everybody else in the room, he’s not appointed by me. He’s appointed by the state school board," DeWine said.
But when asked if he wanted more authority to pick a superintendent, DeWine deflected.
“Every governor’s had an opinion about that in the past. I think we’ll let that pass," said DeWine.
DeWine has made his mark on the state school board already, though. He appointed former prisons director Reginald Wilkinson and former Reynoldsburg schools superintendent Steve Dackin to the board in June, and has two appointments opening up in January.