Three finalists for Ed Commissioner have public interviews for the job

March 30, 2023, midnight ·

Brian Maher answers questions from the board.
Brian Maher answers questions from the Board of Education. (Photo courtesy of Nebraska Department of Education)

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Three finalists for the Nebraska Commissioner of Education job interviewed with the State Board of Education Thursday. Meeting in Omaha, the candidates were asked about gender identity in schools, student achievement and balancing urban and rural needs.

Either Brian Maher, Summer Stephens, and Melissa Poloncic will be the next commissioner.

Summer Stephens has been the superintendent of the Churchill County School District in Nevada for more than four years. She earned the state’s Superintendent of the Year award in 2023.

Stephens said schools and the department of education could communicate how gender identity and critical race theory education are playing out in schools. She says it’s her goal to show parents where to look for those curricula to see what’s out there.

“We just haven't shown people the way to do that. And that's our job as educators is to do so,” Stephens said. “And that's one of the things that I would spearhead in the department — making sure that we are telling the story and telling it for everyone and encouraging people how to tell their story.”

She said schools today are places where students can learn a number of different viewpoints.

Brian Maher is a member of the South Dakota Board of Regents. He spoke was the first to be interviewed Thursday and frequently referred to his 20 years of experience as a superintendent in Nebraska and South Dakota.

He said he wants to communicate the board’s collective opinion on gender identity.

“I think the first thing you would get from me is that I won't overreact to those issues,” Maher said. “And, that I will have a good amount of self regulation when it comes to working with you as a board on really tough and sensitive issues.”

In a past experience with the Board of Regents in South Dakota, Maher said they were forced to make tough decisions on a separate but equally controversial issue, critical race theory. He said the board elected to keep CRT as a small part of law and other curriculum. Maher said that experience could help him with handling gender identity in education as well.

Melissa Poloncic is the superintendent for Douglas County West Community Schools in Valley, Nebraska, and has been in the role for more than eight years.

Poloncic said she believes educators should, first and foremost, teach students how to think.

“And my beliefs are that as educators, we have always been empowered to engage students in thinking and learning and developing,” Poloncic said.

She said that different age groups will have different abilities to understand complex topics like gender identity.

When talking about improving student outcomes, Stephens said allowing teachers to educate each student individually will boost achievement.

“Until we personalize education for children, we will have a difficult time saying with 100% certainty that every child's needs have been met,” Stephen said. “And I think I can bring it.”

In talking about the state’s current testing system, she drew an analogy from her experience in 4-H.

“Weighing the pig more is never going to make the pig fatter. Weighing it on somebody else's scale is never going to necessarily make it fatter. It might give you a different answer. It's all about how you care for that pig,” Stephens said. “Now, students clearly are not pigs, but my analogy is from my farm life as a Nebraska child and teenager.”

Stephens grew up in Utica, Nebraska, just west of Lincoln.

Maher said an older testing system, called MAP, was effective in his past experiences.

“There's feedback three times a year for the teachers that they can use directly to impact instruction,” Maher said. “So, that's one of the things that I would like to see us do, is continue our emphasis on the MAP assessment.”

Students and teachers can also set goals and plan around those tests, Maher said.

Poloncic said in her strategic plan she would include a new achievement process.

“That process of consensus of what we're going to work on often comes from feedback, but it also comes from data,” Poloncic said.

She also said the current assessment system isn’t achieving its goals. Poloncic said she would like to reexamine those tests.

All the candidates say visiting as many Nebraska school districts as possible will be a priority to understand the unique needs for rural and urban districts.

Poloncic said she’s noticed literacy, career and technical education, and mental health needs are all important no matter the size of the schools.

“There really are some common needs between metropolitan areas and rural settings,” Poloncic said. “If you talk to people across the state, everyone's struggling with a lot of your big areas.”

She said she hopes to look at those issues first, to make the most impact.

The other candidates agree that communication with all districts is important. Stephens said a variety of feedback will help the department learn what’s working and what’s not.

Maher said in addition to meeting with schools, he specifically wants to talk to superintendents across the state.

The state board will make their decision on Friday—and the new commissioner will start this summer.