He lives on the other corner of the continent. He has a bit of a "Google problem." But the Anchorage School Board says a former Florida superintendent looking to make Alaska his last stop in a long career is the best pick to serve as CEO of the city's schools.
Board president Gretchen Guess announced Jim Browder as the new district superintendent Tuesday, praising the 64-year-old's record of boosting test scores, weathering spending cuts and steering a school system 50 percent larger than Anchorage.
"He brings an energy and experience to the district that we know will lead to great things," Guess told reporters and school district employees.
Browder, from Fort Myers, replaces longtime Anchorage schools chief Carol Comeau. He'll start full time in April, immediately working to meet staff, students and parents in what Guess called a three-month "listening tour."
Comeau will remain in charge until her June 30 retirement, Guess said.
'A LOT OF LOCAL POLITICS'
The Anchorage superintendent job is one of the most powerful government positions in Alaska, overseeing 49,000 students and 6,500 regular employees. Comeau has held the post since 2000. In December, the board named Browder and Kenai Superintendent Steve Atwater as the two finalists to replace her. Browder was offered the job Saturday and signed the three-year contract Tuesday morning, Guess said.
Browder will be paid $180,000 a year plus basic benefits, according to the contract. Comeau made $165,000.
Guess said Browder's pay remains below the national average of $239,000 for urban superintendents. His contract does not include a housing allowance and the district will pay up to $10,000 in moving expenses as Browder and his wife relocate from Florida, Guess said.
Browder served as superintendent of the 82,000-student Lee County system in southwest Florida from 2003 to 2010.
More recently, he made headlines during a tumultuous run as a senior administrator at Edison State College in Florida. Faculty at Edison State complained that he had been hired without a search and that he was overpaid, according to local news reports.
The college's board of trustees voted last April to terminate Browder's contract, according to the Naples Daily News.
(For Alaskans trying to learn more about the new superintendent, those troubles are among the first things found in online searches.)
Guess said board members talked extensively with Browder about his controversial departure from the job, which she described as "a lot of local politics at a local college."
That problem came after Browder's run as head of Lee County schools, she said.
"We talked to people in Florida at that time and were satisfied with the answers we got," Guess said. "We really focused on the seven years he was at Lee County. The fact (that) across the board, every grade level, every academic area went up over those seven years."
Browder worked for the district as a high school principal and administrator before his selection as superintendent of the Florida district in 2003. Lee County school board member Jane Kuckel told the Daily News in an early January phone interview that he exceeded expectations in that job.
"He took control of this district -- turned it around from a dysfunctional organization to a well-oiled machine," she said. She would hire him again, she said.
The Anchorage district's budget is more than $800 million a year. The district Browder oversaw in Florida has an annual budget of about $1.4 billion, he said.
He said Tuesday that Anchorage is a well-performing district that Comeau has managed masterfully over the past 12 years.
"What she has started and has in place for the system will be real positive going forward," he said. "I hope to take what Carol has done and improve on that with the people that are currently there."
'I GAVE IT A GOOD SHOT'
Alaskans like to think of their state as inscrutable to outsiders, and Tuesday's announcement surprised some district employees and observers who expected Soldotna-based Atwater to get the nod as Comeau's replacement.
Atwater said he believed he enjoyed some local support for the job, in part because of his Alaska roots. "I gave it a good shot," he said.
"I felt like I learned a lot from (the selection process.) It gave me a deeper understanding of education in Anchorage and also in Alaska ... I look forward to continuing the good work that we're doing here in the Kenai," Atwater said.
He has two years remaining on his contract at the Peninsula district, he said.
The teachers union, the Anchorage Education Association, did not formally endorse either candidate. Union president Jim Lepley said he was "very comfortable" with the Browder selection.
Browder made a charismatic impression during an early January visit to Anchorage, during which he met with teachers, district employees and the public, Lepley said.
The candidate was comfortable fielding questions, remembered people's names and seemed to be able to work well with others in a job that is large parts salesman and politician, Lepley said.
"He described (Anchorage) as a 'peach of a school district' and he would like the opportunity to lead it for however many years," Lepley said.
Browder hopes to work in Anchorage for seven to 10 years before retiring, he said.
The Floridian pursued several superintendent posts around the country after leaving Edison State.
Before winning the Anchorage job, he was a finalist over the summer for a superintendent job in Jackson, Tenn., and a finalist this fall for a superintendent post in Broward County, Fla., according to news reports at the time.
The website for School District of Palm Beach County in Florida currently lists Browder as one of four finalists for a superintendent job there, but Browder has already agreed to the Alaska post, according to the Anchorage district.
Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at email@example.com.
By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News