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With Shumway gone, who will be Utah's next schools boss?

Published September 7, 2012 1:35 pm

His time was marked by wilting funding, debates on testing.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

State Superintendent Larry Shumway plans to retire after three years as Utah's top education official — a time marked by debates over academic standards and testing and a recession that strained schools here and nationwide.

Shumway officially announced his retirement Friday. He told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday night that it was his decision to leave the post, and he's doing so simply because he felt the time was right.

"There are a lot of reasons, mostly personal," Shumway, 58, said of his decision to retire, effective Jan. 1. "I've just loved working for the state board and serving the state board. Our relationship has been strong, but one just arrives at a decision that it is the right time to go to whatever might be next in one's life."

State school board chairwoman Debra Roberts said Thursday night that Utah schools have come a long way since Shumway took the lead. The state board met for an executive session on Thursday evening in advance of its regular board meeting on Friday.

"This is one of those decisions where we tried to talk him out of it because we very much appreciate what he's done," Roberts said.

She praised Shumway for his vision, humor, willingness to try new approaches and fundamental understanding of the role of public education.

Shumway said he believes his biggest accomplishments over the past few years have included helping the board craft a mission and vision statement for public education called Promises to Keep; rising eighth-grade reading scores and ACT test participation; the State Office of Education's work on teacher evaluations; Utah's adoption of more rigorous Common Core academic standards; the move toward computer-adaptive testing; and the strengthening of relationships between state education leaders and the Legislature.

That's not to say, however, Shumway hasn't also faced a number of challenges during his time leading Utah schools.

In recent months, some conservative groups have lashed out at state education leaders over their adoption of Common Core academic standards, saying they'll lead to a loss of local control — a claim leaders and Shumway flatly refute.

And last year, two top education finance officials resigned upon the discovery that a miscalculation at the state education office led to a $25 million anticipated shortfall in the state's education budget. The blunder was essentially the result of a spreadsheet error. Ultimately, lawmakers voted to give schools an additional $25 million to make up for the mistake.

"That was one where, from the very beginning, I recognized that our goal had to be to deal with it in a way that would lead to the appropriation of the $25 million that school children needed, and that meant some very difficult decisions that affected people I cared very deeply about and that I considered not just my colleagues but my dear friends," Shumway said Thursday.

But perhaps the biggest challenge of Shumway's time as superintendent was an economic downturn that cast a financial pall over Utah schools. It was a challenge that led some districts to shorten their school years, raise taxes and/or increase class sizes.

"It has required him to really make hard decisions," said Deon Turley, education commissioner for the Utah PTA.

Shumway noted that despite the economic strain, "great" local school boards, superintendents and charter school directors managed to keep going.

"It's been a challenging time to lead public education in Utah with the board," Shumway said, "but I think we can feel good about those years."

Turley noted that the PTA has had a good relationship with Shumway and has respected that he's always been willing to hear from all groups. She said he will be missed.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, also said Thursday night that Shumway's absence will be felt. Stephenson, who has headed several key education committees over the years, praised Shumway for building a connection between state education leaders and the Legislature. He also cited moves toward computer adaptive testing and digital learning as hallmark's of Shumway's time. He called Shumway a "true educational leader and consensus builder."

"Oftentimes we disagree, but he has been willing to work for the middle ground to find areas where compromise can be achieved with the Legislature," Stephenson said. "Rather than just hunkering down and failing to move anything he found ways of convincing us that there was a middle ground we could agree with."

He also praised Shumway for keeping his cool in the face of backlash over the Common Core.

Shumway said controversy comes and goes, and, "My hope has been that I will have been one who engaged in the conversations around controversy with civility and rationality."

Roberts said the board will begin the process of selecting Shumway's successor immediately. Shumway — who has worked as an educator for 33 years as a history teacher, Spanish teacher, coach and administrator — said he has no definite plans yet for his retirement.