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Tom West: Myles in running for state education post

In the wake of the ouster of Minnesota Commissioner of Education Cheryl Pierson Yecke by the state Senate, a Duluthian is under consideration to be her replacement.

In the wake of the ouster of Minnesota Commissioner of Education Cheryl Pierson Yecke by the state Senate, a Duluthian is under consideration to be her replacement.

Former Duluth Superintendent of Schools Mark Myles was mentioned first among a half dozen candidates to succeed Yecke in a Star Tribune article June 10.

However, Myles does not sound like a candidate who wants this job badly. He is a native of the Duluth area and currently manages the Hartley Trust. He recently turned down a request to serve as interim superintendent in Osseo. "I've got a good life here in Duluth," he said.

And undoubtedly, at least the next two years will be turbulent for the new education commissioner. Governor Tim Pawlenty was elected in 2002 and promised education reform. He brought in Yecke from Virginia, and, true to his word, she set out to implement more reforms to hold public schools accountable and improve their performance. Not surprisingly, the DFL-controlled state Senate, supported by the teachers' unions, rejected Yecke last month.

Things won't be much better for the next Pawlenty appointee. There's no guarantee that the Senate will approve the next one either. However, at some point the argument will take hold that the governor was fairly elected and deserves to have a commissioner who represents his views, not those of the Legislature. It is difficult to see what political advantage might accrue to the Democrats if the Senate insists the state go without an education commissioner for Pawlenty's entire term.

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As things stand, Pawlenty's hiring process will be more difficult because of the Senate's actions. Who in their right mind would give up a good job and a quiet, stable lifestyle knowing that they could be shown the door on the political whims of three dozen senators. Only somebody truly committed to education reform would do it.

Myles' name popped up because of his reform record as Duluth superintendent from 1994 to 1998 and because he currently is serving on the governor's Education Finance Reform Task Force.

He received a call from the governor's office asking if he had any interest, but when asked directly, he deflects the notion.

In fact, he sent a letter to the governor urging him to appoint Howard Fuller, the former school superintendent in Milwaukee, Wis. Fuller, currently the director of the Institute for Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, was also an agent for change in the public schools.

Myles believes Yecke deserved appointment by the Senate and thought she was doing a great job. He hopes that Pawlenty appoints someone just like her or Fuller.

That could be Myles.

During his time as Duluth superintendent, Myles took a district in financial trouble and five years later left it in excellent financial condition. An article in The Education Industry Report in 1998 quotes Myles, "I inherited a dysfunctional organization deep in debt, without focus and sense of purpose. ... We have made a financial metamorphosis ... eliminated debts and borrowing with three years of balanced budgets, created a $10 million fund reserve, and through efficiencies in transportation, energy purchasing, etc., saved millions and reinvested in programs important to improving teaching and learning."

Controversy erupted, however, when Myles sought support for a charter school. The Edison charter schools in Duluth were created, and many parents are happy with them, but at the time the teachers' union fought to keep Edison out of Duluth.

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After that experience, Myles was quoted in the same article, "I have come to conclude, after over 30 years in public education, that public education will not change from within without powerful catalysts such as competition, customer choice, real professional accountability and private sector participation."

That sounds a lot like Yecke.

While the Duluth Public Schools continue to enjoy the benefits of Myles' changes under the usually wise guidance of current Superintendent Julio Almanza, the biggest issue facing public education in Minnesota is in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Half of the children there fail to graduate from high school.

In his letter to Pawlenty, supporting Fuller, who dealt with similar issues head on in Milwaukee, Myles wrote, "I hope (Yecke's) loss strengthens your resolve to continue to fight for schools that prepare all children for successful lives."

Notice the word "all."

Myles may not be seeking the position, but his name was first in the Star Tribune article, and, perhaps through his work on the education finance reform task force, he has impressed some people in powerful places.

Whether Myles succeeds Yecke or not, it will be interesting to see how this process plays out. I suspect Pawlenty won't be backing down.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com .

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