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Board Chair 'Very Encouraged' By Diverse Applicants To Become Next Education Commissioner

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State education officials plan to gather in late January to pick a new elementary and secondary education commissioner, who will become only the fifth person to hold the post in more than 30 years.

The search was launched after the June death of Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who led the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for nearly a decade.

Paul Sagan, chair of the state education board, said at a Tuesday meeting that about 18 people had submitted applications for the job. He said he was not sure of the exact number because some "literally sent their documents yesterday."

Rosa Morris, a search consultant with the firm Korn Ferry, "made several hundred calls to candidates over the past several months," and will now notify candidates if they've advanced to the next stage of the process, Sagan said.

"She was very pleased with the quality of candidates," Sagan said. "I would say I was extremely pleased."

Sagan said confidential interviews, to be held the second week in January, will be arranged for candidates whom the board is interested in meeting. A preliminary screening committee, which includes Sagan and four other board members as well as educators and community members, will then pick "probably three" finalists for public interviews, he said.

Public interviews are slated for Monday, Jan. 22, at a special meeting Sagan said would likely be held in Boston. He said the hope is that the board will meet again that Friday, Jan. 26, to select a candidate.

Education officials had said in August that they hoped to land on a candidate by the end of 2017.

About two-thirds of the applicants are from out of state and the remainder are from Massachusetts, though some have experience here and elsewhere, Sagan said.

Sagan said he was impressed with the diversity of the candidate pool.

"If you remove a few people who [...] will not be asked to come forward, then 40 percent of the group were women and basically half were minorities, or representing underserved communities — and I think [they're] extremely qualified candidates," Sagan said.

"If we get to the end and we're just not convinced that we have the right group, we'll do it again. But at this point, I was very encouraged."

The new commissioner will step into a role that's been filled by only four white men since 1986, not counting interim commissioners.

Chester came to Massachusetts from the Ohio Department of Education, after the 2008 retirement of David Driscoll, who had held the post for nearly a decade.

Robert Antonucci, a former Falmouth schools superintendent, was commissioner from 1992 until 1998, when he left for a private-sector education job in Pennsylvania. He succeeded Harold Raynolds, who took the post in 1986 and resigned about five years later in frustration over education budget cuts.

During the 1998 search that ultimately landed on Driscoll, the name of James Peyser — then a board member and now Gov. Charlie Baker's education secretary — was floated as among the potential candidates.

In his current role, Peyser will weigh in twice in the commissioner selection process — once as a voting member of the education board, and then when he decides whether to appoint the person the board recommends.

Though the job posting asked candidates to "Please apply no later than December 15, 2017," Sagan stressed that date was not a hard deadline.

"If somebody amazing shows up, we will figure out how to consider them as well," he said.

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