School superintendent interviews for Iowa job but says he's still chief in Anchorage

Rosemary Shinohara

Anchorage school Superintendent Jim Browder is due to meet the public and interview for the superintendent's job in Des Moines, Iowa, on Wednesday. Otherwise, he remains on the job here.

School Board members in Anchorage said they learned on Friday that Browder had applied for the Iowa position and is one of three finalists. The deadline for candidates to apply for the Iowa job was Feb. 11.

Browder, 65, had told the Anchorage board in mid-February that his daughter and grandson in Georgia were seriously ill with separate health problems, and indicated he might have to leave town temporarily; he didn't say he was applying for another job, said board president Jeannie Mackie.

On Friday, Browder spoke individually to Anchorage board members about the Des Moines position, and sent an email to district staff saying he believes it is his responsibility to be closer to his daughter and grandson.

Browder has not made public what the medical problems are or given any interviews to Anchorage news media about his family's medical issues or the possibility of his leaving.

But he spoke at an afternoon School Board meeting Monday, saying he wanted to reassure the board and the community.

"I'm still the superintendent of schools. And working every day in the best interest of ASD students, staff, and this board and community," Browder said. He said his administration and the board have a shared vision and strong strategic plan called Destination Anchorage 2020.

Browder apologized to reporters for not being available to talk since the district announced his plans Friday night. He could not be reached Tuesday either.

Browder has been Anchorage superintendent since July 1, when long-term superintendent Carol Comeau retired. He had worked alongside Comeau since April.

Browder's wife is working as a teacher in Florida, and has not moved to Anchorage, Mackie said.

Anchorage Board members contacted Tuesday said they think the district has made progress under Browder.

"I think he's done some marvelous innovative things here," said board vice president Tam Agosti-Gisler. She cited a greater emphasis on reading and remediation programs, as well as a new assessment program that began under Comeau and is supposed to help teachers catch learning gaps during a school year while they can be quickly addressed.

Board member Don Smith said while he's disappointed the superintendent may leave, "I think the school district has benefitted greatly by Browder."

Smith predicted the district will soon see the results of Browder's staff reorganization and emphasis on academic areas.

"The focus needs to be on the progress we're making, which is great, and this isn't going to derail that in any way," Mackie said.

But Mackie said she understands that the amount of change under way may be unsettling. Besides the uncertainty of Browder's future here, the leadership of the school board is shifting.

Former board president Gretchen Guess has left the board to take a new job out of state. Mackie, the current president, is not running for re-election on the April 2 city ballot.

The board announced Tuesday that it is accepting applications for Guess's seat. The board will choose a replacement to serve from April 1 through April 2014.

Anchorage teacher's union president Andy Holleman said some of the superintendent's changes have contributed to a tough year for teachers and other staff. For example, in elementary school, some music and physical education teachers were moved into reading classes. With budget cuts, a registrar at one school might suddenly be serving two schools.

The reading program, he said, has meant a lot of work and responsibility, "but we don't know if there's a positive pay-off."

That won't come until later, when students take state tests.

"For this to pop up, I'm hearing from a lot of people who are upset about it," Holleman said.

Mackie said it's too early to decide what the board will do if Browder is picked and leaves for Des Moines.

The superintendent search that resulted in Browder's hiring in February 2012 cost the district $54,027, said district spokeswoman Heidi Embley.

There were more than 100 applications, and board members read them all, Mackie said. "He clearly rose to the top right away."

Browder and Kenai Superintendent Steve Atwater were the two finalists for the Anchorage job.

Browder was superintendent of the 82,000-student Lee County, Fla., district from 2003 to 2010.

After that, he had a controversial run as a senior administrator at Edison State College in Florida. College faculty were upset that he was hired without a search, and believed he was overpaid, according to local news reports.

The college's board of trustees voted to terminate his contract.

The circumstances surrounding the opening in Iowa are also unusual. Nancy Sebring, the former superintendent, was about to move to the Omaha Public Schools in Nebraska when reporters last year found "explicit" emails she had sent to a male lover from her work account, the Los Angeles Times reported on June 3, 2012. When that became public, Sebring resigned the Omaha job before it began.

The finalists in Des Moines include Browder, interim Des Moines Superintendent Thomas Ahart and Carey Wright, chief academic officer of the District of Columbia Public Schools in Washington, D.C.

Ahart and Wright were to be interviewed Monday and Tuesday. Browder is scheduled for a reception in the Des Moines public library Wednesday afternoon, and an interview at 7 p.m.

If Browder leaves Anchorage, his contract requires him to give the Anchorage district four months' notice.

"If he needs to leave for his family, we completely get that," Mackie said. "We're definitely willing to work with him on that."

Reach Rosemary Shinohara at or 257-4340.