SALT LAKE CITY — Sydnee Dickson was chosen Thursday to lead the Utah State Office of Education as the state superintendent of public instruction.
The decision came in a unanimous vote by the Utah State Board of Education after final interviews with Dickson and Alpine School District educator Taran Chun, the other finalist for the position.
Dickson has been serving as the interim state superintendent since Brad Smith resigned from the position in March. Smith led the state education office for just 15 months, adding to quick turnover among previous superintendents.
Board members said they are confident in Dickson's ability to lead Utah's education system through funding difficulties, a looming teacher shortage, changes to Utah's student assessment system and other challenges.
"Her demonstrated passion for education, her strong leadership, her ability to build relationships both on (Capitol) Hill and the education community" are traits board members value, said Chairman David Crandall.
Crandall said the months Dickson has served as the interim superintendent have given the board perspective on her leadership style and vision for schools.
"When you're working closely with somebody, you see both the good and the bad, the strengths and the weaknesses," he said. "We know what we're getting with Dr. Dickson, and we're excited to work with her."
Dickson has been at the state education office for several years, serving in various capacities. She has previously worked in the Granite, Davis and Murray school districts as an educator and an administrator. She holds a doctorate in educational leadership and policy, and master's degrees in school counseling and educational administration.
Dickson said she hopes to improve collaboration between education leaders and lawmakers to improve outcomes for students and teachers.
"I want educators to not only feel valued, but be treated with value. I want the state to come together as a whole to think about funding mechanisms that are more permanent for education," Dickson said. "I think we are living in a time and space with a lot of opportunities, and I want to see things change for the better."
Dickson was announced as a finalist for the position, along with Chun, on Thursday. Chun is is the principal of Mountain View High School in Orem, and an adjunct professor at the University of Utah and Utah Valley University. He is also on the board of trustees at UVU, and has served previously in the Provo and Granite school districts.
Recent estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau show that Utah still has the lowest levels of per-pupil funding in the country, a ranking it's held for decades. Both Dickson and Chun presented their views on how to advance the state's school system, despite funding shortages for education.
"When we think of infrastructure, we tend to think about transportation and roads. Those spaces of infrastructure get everybody's attention because those things belong to all of us," Dickson said. "I think the same about our public school children, and all children in the state of Utah. We have to start thinking about funding as a source of economic and civic infrastructure."
Chun said informing Utahns on the challenge of keeping teachers in the classroom on low salaries when economic conditions are more promising elsewhere will prompt people to be willing to pay more for education.
"I think the timing is right … to approach our taxpayers," Chun said. "I don't think it will be hard for us to paint that picture."
Both candidates said elevating teacher morale, in addition to compensation, is critical to improving educator retention and recruitment. Currently, almost half of all new teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job. Prospective educators graduating from Utah's colleges and universities are also becoming more scarce, according to the state education office.
School grades, one of Utah's accountability systems for schools, is contributing to that problem, Chun said.
"School grading is one of those narratives that's causing teachers to lose our profession," he said. "School grading makes SAGE a high-stakes test."
SAGE, or the student assessment of growth and excellence, has come under recent scrutiny by the State School Board. The year-end test for K-12 students may see several changes in the coming year, including being dropped in high school and replaced with the ACT, a college preparation exam.
Dickson said SAGE has inherent values, such as a rigorous bank of test questions and a format that prompts students to go beyond a multiple-choice answer. But she said she's "saddened" that the test has put a heavier emphasis on year-end results over more frequent measures.
"That is really the core of quality of instruction, really gathering data and doing so in multiple ways," she said.
Dickson added that her vision going forward will be to better unify the state education office and the State School Board in setting policy, adapting to an evolving economic landscape and preparing students for life.
"I really do believe that there's this movement of being one team with common goals. My goal would be to have us working as one team," she said. "There's so many great opportunities in front of us."
Gov. Gary Herbert offered his congratulations to Dickson late Thursday.
"Her experience as a school counselor, as well as positions at the school, district and state levels, have effectively prepared her to take the helm as superintendent," Herbert said in a prepared statement. "I look forward to working with Syd and other stakeholders as we push forward in our goal to make Utah's education system the best in America."