The Arkansas Department of Education is losing two of its five assistant commissioners as well as its chief of staff, but Education Commissioner Dr. Tom Kiimbrell said Tuesday that turnover is simply part of what happens at the department.
Dr. Laura Bednar, the state’s assistant commissioner for learning services, is leaving to become a deputy superintendent at Pulaski County, while Jared Cleveland, assistant commissioner for fiscal and administrative services, will be a deputy superintendent at Springdale.
Bednar is being replaced by Dr. Megan Witonksi, Elkins superintendent, while Cleveland is being replaced by Mike Hernandez, superintendent at Danville.
These are two high profile positions. Bednar has been the state’s point person in its transition to the Common Core State Standards, an ongoing process that has taken several years and is not yet completed. Cleveland has been in charge of ensuring districts are fiscally sound. His office’s calculations can determine whether a school district is placed on the fiscal distress list.
Kimbrell said Witonski has been involved in the Common Core transition as part of a guiding coalition of educators working with Bednar and as part of a coordinating council working with education leaders from other states.
Meanwhile, Kimbrell is looking for a chief of staff after Phyllis Stewart announced she was leaving the department to become communications director of the Arkansas School Boards Association. Kimbrell said he has been talking to potential replacements and hopes to make an announcement soon.
Is this a case of high-ranking department employees finding permanent employment during the last half of a gubernatorial second term? Kimbrell said no.
He said assistant commissioners aren’t necessarily replaced when new leadership takes over the department. Bednar and Cleveland both accepted higher-paying jobs for personal and professional reasons, he said. Stewart was filling two roles at ADE – chief of staff and communications director – and took a job with an organization with which she has a longstanding relationship.
Kimbrell said school districts can pay more than the department and that turnover is not unusual. Of the state’s five assistant commissioners, only Jim Boardman, assistant commissioner for research and technology, was in that position when Kimbrell became education commissioner less than four years ago in September 2009. The positions Witonski and Hernandez are taking have turned over twice.
Kimbrell said, after less than four years on the job, he is now “in the top 15 if not the top 10 in tenure now” among state school officers across the country. He said he hasn’t seriously considered how much longer he will stay at the department and hasn’t talked to any of the announced gubernatorial candidates about whether they plan to keep him in the job after the election.
“I don’t like to predict the future,” he said. “I don’t try to predict the future. I just put myself in a position that where I’m at will depend upon what doors the good Lord opens for me and (upon) the situations in which I find myself both professionally and personally.”