Gov. Herbert’s education adviser steps down

(Laura Seitz | Deseret News, pool) Tami Pyfer, the governor's education advisor, speaks at the COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.

Tami Pyfer, who has served for more than six years as Gov. Gary Herbert’s education adviser, announced Tuesday that she will be stepping down.

The move comes as Herbert’s final term in office winds down, a time when senior staff members commonly leave. But it was a tearful goodbye for Pyfer, who has led on several major projects — pushing to get rid of letter grades in schools, fighting against education vouchers, and most recently directing how classrooms should reopen with precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She’s not a shrinking violet, as you all know,” Herbert said during a farewell party for Pyfer on Tuesday.

The governor choked up as he talked about working with Pyfer since picking her as his adviser in January 2014. At the time, she was leading the Utah Board of Education and gave up her seat to join his staff.

Herbert laughed as he described Pyfer as “exasperating” when she defended what policies she felt were best for students and teachers, but also “exciting” to work with during his administration. He said he’s unsure how he’ll finish his time in office without her — even if she always yelled at him over his support of vouchers.

“She’s done a lot to raise the bar for education,” he added. “It’s nothing less than remarkable.”

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who is the front-runner in the race to replace Herbert, also spoke at the event, saying that Pyfer “burns as bright as anyone I know.” He began crying as he recalled how he sat down to interview Pyfer when she first came on board and wished he could go back to that day instead. “2020 sucks, and it just got worse,” he said, trying to laugh through the tears.

Now, Pyfer will be joining UNITE, a new nonprofit, as one of its founders. The organization will, according to a news release from the governor’s office, be “dedicated to inspiring and empowering Americans to join together across divides and work toward a more unified country.”

Pyfer said Tuesday that she’s excited to try something new but leaves behind “the best job I’ve ever had.”

“Whose dream job wouldn’t this be?” she told the crowd of people, all wearing masks, at the Capitol. “It’s also been the most satisfying, rewarding, exasperating, difficult, frustrating, joyful jobs I’ve ever had.”

With a smile, she added: “I have been crying off and on for some time about leaving; they’ve been happy and satisfied tears, though.”

Previously, she worked in the College of Education at Utah State University as a research coordinator. She also served on the Logan City Council for eight years and on the Logan Schools Foundation’s board of directors for seven years. She spent time as the foundation’s executive director before that.

During her time in the governor’s office, Pyfer has worked particularly on improving access to higher education. When she was hired, Herbert set a goal to “have 66% of Utah adults with a college degree or certificate by 2020” — with the end of the year now still a few months away.

The most recent available data, from 2018, puts the state at 56.4%. It was 47.9% when Pyfer started in 2014.

She also points to success in working with the Utah Education Association and Utah PTA, which have been more involved in meeting with the governor’s office in the past few years.

More recently, with COVID-19, she’s been focused on getting students back into the classroom where she says they learn best. That hasn’t come without some pushback, though. Teachers across the state have protested, saying they feel unsafe, and some have quit.

Pyfer acknowledged their concerns during a news conference earlier this month. “To see them leave the classroom for any reason is always a little bit troubling,” she said.

At the time, she added that the state needs to address its ongoing teacher shortage, as well as its large class sizes — both of which have been perpetual issues with education here.

That will be left now to Karen Peterson, who will fill Pyfer’s position as the governor’s education adviser through the end of the year and the end of his administration. Peterson is currently Herbert’s deputy education adviser, a position she has held for the past five years.

Peterson spoke, too, at Pyfer’s farewell Tuesday. She joked that Pyfer is persistent and dedicated to her beliefs — whether that’s education or “Hamilton” or Cafe Rio.

“She just brings the rest of us along with her,” Peterson said.

Peterson noted, as well, that when she was receiving cancer treatments Pyfer used to bring Utah State’s Aggie ice cream to her house. “She cried as many tears as I did,” Peterson added. And, as a member of The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Peterson joked, Pyfer was always singing in the office.

Herbert added: “Who will sing for us when you’re gone?”