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OGDEN — Summer tension in the Ogden School District didn't ease this week with the appointment of a new superintendent who helped author the source of teachers' angst.
The Ogden School Board turned to one of its own Monday, selecting board member Brad Smith to succeed Noel Zabriskie, who resigned effective Sept. 6.
An attorney, Smith has served on the board since 2007. His appointment caught the Ogden Education Association off guard.
"We're shocked. It was a total, total surprise," said Doug Stephens, OEA president. "It's highly unusual to choose a superintendent that has no experience in education, no educational background."
The Utah Education Association was equally dismayed.
It's highly unusual to choose a superintendent that has no experience in education, no educational background.
–Doug Stephens, Ogden Education Association
"This is very atypical and was certainly a curious selection and curious procedure that they followed," said UEA spokesman Mike Kelley, adding Smith takes office under a "veil of suspicion."
The Ogden School Board did not solicit applications, conduct a search or interview any other candidates for the job, which pays $120,000 a year. Board members considered several options to replace Zabriskie, whose wife died from cancer last Friday. But with school starting it wanted to fill the position quickly and with the least disruption to district operations.
"At some point, I suggested I would be willing to serve," Smith said.
The board appointed him after a closed meeting Monday night. Smith did not attend the meeting or vote on his appointment.
The Ogden School Board is standing by that decision despite the opposition. School board president Don Belnap told The Ogden Standard-Examiner "Brad is very knowledgeable ... He is a reader and has a personal library of, I'm guessing, thousands of books. He is very articulate and well-read, and he's very aware of the things going on in the Ogden School District."
Smith, 45, is well aware of the criticism as he steps into his new role. "I think educators have a lot to offer, but in terms of administering the district, I don't think they're the only ones who have things to offer," he said.
As a lawyer, he said his skill set includes solving problems, bridging gaps, understanding other points of view, digesting complex issues and communication. Repairing relationships with teachers tops his to-do list and he plans to do it directly rather than through "surrogates" who represent them.
"One of the most important things I can and intend to do is to be out talking to teachers face to face," said Smith, who has a child at each level of school in the district.
I think educators have a lot to offer, but in terms of administering the district, I don't think they're the only ones who have things to offer.
–Brad Smith, new superintendent
Ogden teachers and the board were at odds after they were unable to agree on a new contract this past summer. The board bypassed collective bargaining with the OEA and offered a 2011-12 contract to individual teachers who were told to sign it or find new jobs. Smith, one of main architects of the contract, attributed the impasse to a failure to communicate.
All but one of the nearly 700 teachers ultimately agreed to the terms. But it left them questioning whether the board has any interest in collaboration.
"They really want to be involved in the decisions that are made, but the board seems to be acting more unilaterally," Kelley said.
For education to work properly, there must be cooperation between teachers, administrators, parents and board members, said Stephens, a Ben Lomond High School teacher.
"It takes a whole team to to make education work, especially in a district like Ogden that has the most poverty of any district in the state," he said.
Stephens hopes Smith tries to bring the two sides together despite the approach the board took for contract negotiations and appointing a superintendent.
"We're going to work with whoever is in charge, but this is very, very unusual," he said.
Nothing in state law requires school boards to follow any particular selection process, said Carol Lear, an attorney with State Office of Education. Candidates don't need to be educators and local school boards may fill the position based only on "outstanding professional qualifications" under state law.
Smith joins two other Utah superintendents who don't have traditional teaching licenses or experience.