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New state education commissioner chosen

New state education commissioner chosen

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Nebraska’s newest education commissioner grew up talking about education around the dinner table.

His dad was on the school board in the small southwest Nebraska town of Palisade and oversaw the consolidation of the school district there with nearby Wauneta.

His two great-uncles were school administrators, and his mom went back to college to get her teaching degree as a way to demonstrate the importance of college to her children.

Matthew Blomstedt got the message, earning three degrees from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and immersing himself in education research and policy work for the state.

On Thursday, the Nebraska State Board of Education unanimously voted to offer him its top job.

“I feel like it’s pretty much ingrained in me to be a part of the education system in the state,” Blomstedt told the board Wednesday.

Its members agreed, selecting him a day after interviewing four finalists about several issues, including Common Core standards, assessment and accountability and the achievement gap.

But some members appeared, before the vote, to favor reform-minded Michael Sentance, who was chief education adviser under two Massachusetts governors in the 1990s.

Sentance offered a fairly blistering assessment of Nebraska students’ performance, particularly in math, and said its content standards need to be upgraded and improved.

Board members said they appreciated Sentance's data and perspective, which pointed out that the state has some serious work ahead of it.

Board member Mark Quandahl went a step further, saying sticking with the status quo in a new commissioner might not be the best decision.

“We are all Nebraskans, we’re proud of Nebraska but we need to not view things through rose-colored glasses,” he said. “We’ve got a choice here. To stay on the path we’re on or take the road less traveled. That would be a bold move.”

In the end, the board opted for Blomstedt’s emphasis on successfully negotiating with policymakers and other education groups, his knowledge of the state’s financing system and understanding of the differences in urban and rural education.

He will succeed Commissioner Roger Breed, who retired in July.

Board member Lillie Larsen said Blomstedt, who is executive director of the Nebraska Educational Service Unit Coordinating Council, has worked with superintendents throughout the state and will continue to develop as commissioner.

“It seems to me he has the combination of qualities that will be able to do what’s best for education in Nebraska,” she said.

Blomstedt, 41, has held a number of policy and research posts including research analyst for the Nebraska Legislature’s education committee. He was appointed to the Nebraska School Finance Review committee as a school finance expert and was the first full-time executive director of the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association.

He earned a Ph.D. in educational leadership and higher education, a master's in community and regional planning and a bachelor of arts in political science.

Other candidates for the commissioner's job were Virginia Moon, another Nebraska native who most recently served as interim superintendent of Omaha Public Schools; and Norman Ridder, a school superintendent in Springfield, Mo., who was also a finalist for Lincoln Public Schools superintendent in 2010.

Board member Rachel Wise said it is the board’s job to make sure the state Education Department moves forward aggressively and does not become complacent.

“We have the burden of responsibility to see that we’re not safe, that we’re not following a path that does not build a strong model for success for all students.”

Blomstedt, who lives in Central City and is the father of five children, said he’s honored the board decided he has the skills to help the state’s education system become the best in the country.

He accepted the position Thursday and said he likely will begin his duties after the beginning of the year. Salary negotiations are ongoing. Breed made $211,650 when he retired.

Blomstedt said his passion for making sure all students get a good education stems from his uncle, who had Down syndrome.

He never knew the uncle he is named after, but he knows how important he was to the family and that his grandparents were part of a group who set up a system so students with disabilities could attend school -- nearly unheard of in the 1960s.

That took courage, Blomstedt said.

“We have to be brave to set up the right education system in the state.”

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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