Saturday, September 09, 2000

New school head is an old hand


Wilhoit new head of Education in Ky.

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — The state school board Friday opted to stick with familiar experience and selected a ranking Department of Education administrator as commissioner of education.

        Gene Wilhoit will become the state's third appointed commissioner. He succeeds Wilmer Cody, who brought Mr. Wilhoit into the department as a deputy commissioner in 1997. Mr. Cody resigned Dec. 31.

[photo] Gene Wilhoit and Kentucky Board of Education member Helen Mountjoy after his appointment Friday.
(Associated Press photo)
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        Mr. Wilhoit nosed out two other finalists — Stu Silberman, superintendent of Daviess County schools, and Sammie Campbell Parrish, a college dean from Durham, N.C., who once was superintendent of Cleveland schools.

        Helen Mountjoy, the board's chairwoman, said any of the three “would be able to walk in and do the job.” Mr. Wilhoit's familiarity helped tip the scales, she said.

        “He's been so intimately involved in the decisions that are made affecting student progress over the last three years,” Ms. Mountjoy said. “He has a clear sense of where we need to go.”

        She also said Mr. Wilhoit has great rapport with many legislators — a significant factor for any commissioner.

        Mr. Wilhoit said he relished “the most exciting challenge I've ever had.” The department and state board have “major problems” to iron out if a goal of getting all school children to profi ciency is to be realized, Mr. Wilhoit said.

        The problems include an “achievement gap,” meaning a wide disparity in test scores, between white and black students, he said. Another is the school dropout rate, about which the department will propose a plan in two months, Mr. Wilhoit said.

        “We don't have to set a new direction. That direction is clear,” he said.

        Mr. Wilhoit also said a high priority would be improvement of the department's data collection and analysis. Mundane as that may sound, it is critical for good policymaking, he said. The department has numerous, excellent databases, “but they don't talk to each other,” he said.

        Mr. Silberman, reached by telephone in Owensboro, said he was “very much at peace with the decision.”

        Ms. Parrish, dean of the School of Education at North Carolina Central University, could not immediately be reached for comment. If selected, she would have been the first black and second woman to head Kentucky's public school system.

        Wayne Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, said his members wanted someone who was approachable and “someone who knew the problems. I think Gene fits both of those criteria.”

        Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, also said Mr. Wilhoit's experience was a plus. “He won't have to lead blind for six months or let other people lead,” Mr. Hughes said.

        More importantly, Mr. Wilhoit “has a keen focus on kids learning (rather) than on I's being dotted and T's crossed,” Mr. Hughes said.

        Gov. Paul Patton issued a brief statement praising Mr. Wilhoit's selection.

        Mr. Cody was from Louisiana. His predecessor, Thomas Boysen, was from California. There was considerable sentiment among many school administrators and legislators that the next commissioner should be from within Kentucky.

        Mr. Wilhoit filled that bill to a certain extent. He is a graduate of Georgetown College, but most of his 33-year career has been spent in nearby states — Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, where he held a series of classroom and administrative posts, and Arkansas, where he was chief state school officer from 1993 to 1997.

        Ms. Mountjoy said Mr. Wilhoit was being offered a four-year contract. Details remain to be negotiated, but the salary would be about $175,000, she said. His hiring probably would take effect Oct. 1, she said.
       



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