ALBANY — State school policymakers in rapid succession Tuesday named a temporary five-member administrative leadership team headed by attorney Shannon Tahoe, who will serve as acting education commissioner for the next few months until a longer-term replacement is found.
Tahoe, formerly the department’s acting chief counsel, was appointed acting commissioner by unanimous vote of the state Board of Regents, effective Nov. 16. The board also tagged four others for top positions in an agency that recently has experienced unusual turnover within its upper ranks.
Tahoe, who will continue working at her current salary of $155,000 a year, said in a brief interview after her appointment that she looked forward to working with the Regents in “enhancing the new graduation standards.”
On Monday, the department officially launched an effort, expected to take more than two years to complete, to revamp requirements for high school diplomas. One question before the Regents and their staff in the department is whether to reduce the state’s emphasis on exams in English, algebra and other subjects to determine eligibility for graduation.
The number of new appointments approved within a few minutes’ time took some local school representatives by surprise.
“Wow, I knew there were openings, but they’re moving fast there,” said Roberta Gerold, superintendent of the sprawling Middle Country district in Brookhaven Town. “That’s good — I think they recognize the importance of the work.”
Still, Gerold, like other veteran school administrators at the local level, voiced continued concern over the transitory nature of some state appointments. At the top level, for example, the Regents’ plan is to have Tahoe serve as acting commissioner until they can agree on a longer-term interim commissioner, who in turn will be replaced by a permanent appointee once a formal search is conducted.
“It’s always a concern when the person in the commissioner’s post is an 'interim' or 'acting' who’s not going to be there for an extended period to give them a sense of direction,” said Gerold, a former president of the Suffolk County Superintendents Association.
The Regents’ leadership took an optimistic view of the situation, noting that four appointees bring with them a total of more than 90 years’ educational experience.
“The State Education Department is in a time of transition and with transition comes opportunity,” said Betty Rosa of the Bronx, chancellor of the board, in a prepared statement.
Other appointments announced Tuesday:
- John D’Agati, as senior deputy commissioner for education policy. D’Agati has more than 20 years overall experience in higher education and previously served as the education department’s deputy commissioner for higher education before recently handing in his resignation.
- Elisa Alvarez as associate commissioner for the Office of Bilingual Education and World Languages. Alvarez comes to the department from New York City’s Multilingual Learners Central Office, where she was an executive director, and has a background of more than 27 years in education.
- Jason Harmon, as assistant commissioner for the Office of Accountability. Harmon previously was chief of the education department’s Bureau of School Improvement, and has nearly 15 years experience in education.
- Lesli Myers-Small, as assistant commissioner for the Office of Innovation and School Reform. She has nearly 30 years experience overall and is currently superintendent of the upstate Brockport school district.
Robert Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said he was encouraged by the appointment of Myers-Small, who has helped his agency provide training to younger administrators. At the same time, Lowry said he continues to wonder how the education department will weather its transition.
“I think the Regents are making the best of a difficult situation,” Lowry said. “Shannon is well respected, but she’s acknowledged herself that she won’t be in this role for an extended time.”
Since March, nine high-ranking executives in the education department, including former Commissioner Mary-Ellen Elia, have announced their resignations, prompting some local school officials to describe the situation as worrisome. Rosa acknowledged those concerns Tuesday, but added she and her fellow policymakers “have forged ahead on behalf of the children of New York State.”
Roger Tilles of Manhasset, who represents Long Island on the board, said after Tuesday’s votes that he was “as confident as I’ve ever been in this board.”