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How to Tell the Difference Between the Contenders for Ohio State Superintendent

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Thursday, March 7, 2013 at 12:22 PM

In one corner, vying for the post of Ohio's next state superintendent, is Dick Ross, Gov. John Kasich's lead education advisor and the guy who crafted many of Ohio's major education policy changes of the past year.

In the other corner is Michael Sawyers, the former number-two at the Ohio Department of Education and the guy who's been running the department since the former state superintendent resigned last year.

Next week, the state Board of Education will pick a winner.

What's the Difference Between These Two Guys?

Dick Ross

Michael Sawyers

  • Age 44.
  • Since August, basically ran the Ohio Department of Education after former state superintendent Stan Heffner resigned.
  • Before that, Sawyers was an assistant superintendent with the department where his main job was overseeing Ohio's $400 million federal Race to the Top grant. That's the grant that's financing a host of changes to Ohio's schools related to new curricula, new teacher evaluations and using data to improve teaching. And before that, he was superintendent of the Perry school district in northeast Ohio.

What are People Saying About Them?

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The head of Batelle for Kids, a Columbus-based non-profit involved with many Ohio school improvement efforts, likes both Ross and Sawyers.  Batelle for Kids Executive Director James Mahoney wrote letters of support for both candidates. He says:

"[Ross] would make an excellent choice as our next educational leader for the State of Ohio."


"It is without question or reservation that I recommend to you Michael Sawyers as your next superintendent."

Mahoney said today he stands by his dual endorsements, but that it's up to the state board to pick the best finalist:

"I do think they're just good people. And I'm delighted that the two finalists are Ohio folks. I think Ohio needs somebody from Ohio."

Ross also got endorsements from the Fordham Institute's Terry Ryan, former state superintendent Susan Zelman (and new Ohio Department of Education hire), special advisor to Ohio State University  President E. Gordon Gee Herb Asher and Ohio Business Roundtable head Richard Stoff, among others.

In a letter of reference for Ross, Stoff writes:

The very fact that Dick has worked so closely with Governor Kasich this past year in architecting the breakout Achievement Everywhere plan [the governor's education funding and policy proposal] presents a unique opportunity for the State Board to hire a leader who can get this done for Ohio.

Sawyers lists two state Board of Education members -- Vice President Tom Gunlock and Michael Collins -- as references on his application.

Gunlock said today Sawyers had asked to list him as a reference on applications for other jobs, but that serving as a professional reference doesn't necessarily mean he'll vote for Sawyers. He told us:

"I think either of one of them could be great superintendents."

Sawyers also comes recommended by Buckeye Association of School Administrators Executive Director Kirk Hamilton, Ohio Federation of Teachers policy guru Deb Tully, and former state superintendent Stan Heffner, among others.

In a reference letter for Sawyers, Heffner writes that Sawyers "has an institutional memory of the Ohio Department of Education that few persons do:"

Michael is highly regarded and respected throughout the Department of Education, among school district teachers and administrators, in the Governor’s office and at the U.S. Department of Education.  His ability to communicate state policy and translate it into action is highly valued.

And Then There's This

Ross was arrested and plead guilty to drunk driving four years ago, according to his application. The governor's office says they were "aware of" the arrest.

Sawyers charged personal expenses to his district credit card when he was superintendent of the Perry Local school district. Sawyers has said he told the state Board of Education about the charges before he was hired in 2010. Perry Local school board member Suanne Sines writes the controversy over the chages was "not deserved."

What Happens Next?

On Monday, the full state Board of Education will interview both Dick Ross and Michael Sawyers behind closed doors and discuss the candidates. Then, in a public session on Tuesday, the full board will vote on whom to appoint as the next state superintendent.

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