Four finalists will vie to be the next leader of the Nebraska Department of Education, including a current in-state superintendent and two others with close ties to the Cornhusker State.
The Nebraska State Board of Education on Tuesday released its list of finalists to be the next state Commissioner of Education. An ad hoc committee in charge of the search ultimately named four candidates out of the nine that applied, Nebraska Department of Education spokesperson David Jespersen said.
Matt Blomstedt stepped down as commissioner in January after nine years.
The finalists are:
* Lisa Coons, chief academic officer for the Tennessee Department of Education in Nashville.
* Brian Maher, CEO and executive director of the South Dakota Board of Regents in Pierre, South Dakota.
* Melissa Poloncic, superintendent of DC West Community Schools in Valley.
* Summer Stephens, superintendent of Churchill County School District in Fallon, Nevada.
The Nebraska Board of Education will interview the finalists March 30. Finalists will also spend the day meeting with various groups, including NDE staff. The state board plans to make its choice the next day.
“The board received a strong slate of applicants and while choosing finalists was not an easy task, we feel very confident in our selections,” Board President Patti Gubbels said in a news release. “Each finalist brings a unique perspective and extensive experience that will benefit our state.”
The state is paying McPherson and Jacobson, an Omaha-based superintendent consulting firm, to assist with the search.
In January, the board released its profile for the position based on a work session and feedback from the public. Applicants were not required to be superintendents, despite board members indicating they wanted that as a requirement.
Board member Kirk Penner had previously indicated that he wanted a superintendent from within the state.
While only one candidate fits that mold -- Poloncic -- Maher and Stephens are also native Nebraskans with educational ties to the state.
Maher was appointed in June 2020 to lead South Dakota's six public universities as the Board of Regents' executive director. Previously he was a superintendent in Kearney and Centennial before a stint leading schools in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Maher has also held administrative roles in other Nebraska districts, including Waverly, Elkhorn and Johnson-Brock. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a master's from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Poloncic is the only finalist currently working in the state. She has been the superintendent of DC West since 2014 and was previously a principal in Millard.
Poloncic was also a teacher in Kearney and Sutherland and a consultant for Educational Service Unit 16 based in Ogallala. She holds a doctorate in educational leadership from UNL and a master's from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Stephens has been the superintendent and career and technical education administrator at Churchill County School District in Nevada since 2018. She was previously a superintendent in Wyoming and the director of curriculum in Beatrice.
She started her teaching career at Bellevue East High School and later was the secondary English curriculum coordinator at Norris Public Schools. She also holds a doctorate in educational administration from UNL and got her bachelor's and master's at Doane University.
Stephens was also a finalist for the superintendent opening at Bennington Public Schools.
Coons, who appears to be the lone outsider to Nebraska, has been the chief academic officer of Tennessee's education department since 2019, overseeing pre-K-12 academic programming. The chief academic officer reports to the commissioner.
Before that, she was an executive at Metro Nashville Public Schools after serving as the executive director of instructional leadership at the state level.
Blomstedt served as the Commissioner of Education for nine years before stepping down at the beginning of the year to work for an education policy consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.
Deputy Commissioner Deb Frisson has served as interim commissioner in the meantime.