The woman selected to lead the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development declined the position two weeks after the governor said he would appoint her to the role.
Susan McKenzie, who currently directs the Innovation and Education Excellence division in the state education department, said in a prepared statement Wednesday evening that she would stay in that role rather than assuming the commissioner position “due to personal reasons,” adding that it was a “difficult decision to decline the offer.”
It was a sharp turn from two weeks prior, when Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced she would begin serving as commissioner April 1. On Feb. 27, McKenzie said in a prepared statement that “there is great alignment in my skill set and the service as commissioner” and that she “will be involved with all groups, making changes needed to provide an excellent education for every student every day.”
Asked in person about her resignation at a Juneau meeting of the State Board of Education & Early Development on Thursday, McKenzie stressed her departure was due to personal reasons and declined to answer further questions.
The education department has been overseen on an interim basis by Heidi Teshner since the previous commissioner, Michael Johnson, resigned in June. The absence of a permanent commissioner comes amid efforts to implement a reading bill signed last year and ongoing debates in the Legislature on increasing state funding for K-12 education.
Unlike other department heads who are chosen directly by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, the education commissioner is chosen by the state board of education. It is then up to the governor to ratify the decision.
James Fields, who chairs the state board of education, said in February that McKenzie was selected from a final list of four candidates after the board hired a consulting firm to assist with a nationwide search. According to the governor’s calendar, Dunleavy met with Fields and McKenzie on Feb. 23. Dunleavy and Fields also met with another finalist for the job. Fields said that person would “possibly” be considered again for the role, but “it’s wide open.”
The board now plans to let the acting commissioner, Teshner, remain in her position until at least June, when they will again begin the process of finding a permanent replacement for the role.
“We just figured, let’s get through the legislative session since we’re so far into it,” Fields said in an interview Thursday, adding that he was not concerned about going more than a year with the commission position filled on an interim basis.
“I think the previous commissioner left the department in a good spot where the directors and the deputies are very well adept to do the job and the responsibility without having a commissioner in place,” said Fields.
As part of their search process, the board tried to identify commissioner candidates who align with the governor’s policy position, according to Fields.
“The way it’s set up, is we have to appoint but the governor has to approve. So not to consider where they’re at with the governor’s initiatives would harm the ability to even put a commissioner in the position,” said Fields. “I can take 10 names to the governor, but if he doesn’t like any 10, we’re back at ground zero.”
McKenzie’s decision to decline the job came a week after Dunleavy, a Republican, introduced a sexual education bill that triggered sharp criticism from human rights advocates, union leaders and students as an attack on the rights of LGBTQ youth.
McKenzie was charged with presenting the controversial bill — which, among other things, would require parental permission for all classes pertaining to sexual education or gender identity and require gender nonconforming students to use bathrooms according to their sex assigned at birth — to the House Education Committee on Monday.
In her presentation, McKenzie tied the bill to the department’s effort to improve student safety through partnerships with families, but did not address the criticism levied against it, including that it mirrors a measure already implemented in Florida that critics have dubbed the “don’t say gay” bill.
Asked Thursday if her decision was influenced by the governor’s education bills, McKenzie laughed and said no.
Felix Myers, the incoming student adviser to the state board of education, and current student adviser Maggie Cothron both criticized the governor’s proposed parental rights bill in a presentation to the House and Senate education committees on Thursday, arguing it would make LGBTQ students feel unsafe in schools.
“The whole point of education is to give a quality education to students, to be safe, to be comfortable, and part of that is being able to feel safe and accepted in your own community. With this parents’ rights bill, it’s concerning and it’s scary,” said Cothron.
Fields, a father of six, said he doesn’t share the student advisers’ concerns and that he supports the governor’s parental rights bill.
The education department is not the only one that has gone months without having a permanent commissioner at the helm. Labor department commissioner Tamika Ledbetter resigned late January and the governor’s office has yet to announce a replacement.
Daily News reporter Sean Maguire contributed from Juneau.