Education advocates agreed Friday that the state school board will need to recruit someone with wide experience and strong leadership to succeed Jon E. Draud as Kentucky education commissioner.
Draud's announced resignation on Friday comes as Kentucky is facing growing budget restrictions and gearing up to reach important educational goals in the next few years.
His successor will need to shepherd the state through that process, they said, while being an advocate to keep education at the top of the public agenda.
"I think there may be some perception that as a state we may have lost our will to do what it takes to keep the momentum going," said William Young, executive director of the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. "That's partly a function of our financial distress, but also because of the fact that for several years we've put a lot of educational policy on the back burner."
Draud, 70, announced Friday morning that he is resigning as education commissioner, effective in February, mainly because of his illness. Draud, who became commissioner in 2007, suffered a mild stroke in September that affected his ability to walk. He is receiving physical therapy and expects to recover fully, but his medical condition continues to limit his activities.
"While I feel that I have provided outstanding leadership during my illness, it has caused me to rethink my priorities," Draud said in a statement released by his office.
Gov. Steve Beshear led other officials Friday in praising Draud's years of service at all levels of education.
"I want to thank Jon Draud for his distinguished career and longstanding commitment to public service in Kentucky, particularly our children," Beshear said. "As this transition of leadership occurs, I look forward to working with the board of education as a new leader is chosen who will move Kentucky forward in our efforts to create the best educational system in America."
Joe Brothers, chair of the state Board of Education, said in a statement that Draud's decision to retire was "a personal one, and the entire board supports him in that decision."
"We wish him well as he enjoys his family and improving health in the coming years. We shouldn't be surprised in the future to find that Jon is out there somewhere, advocating for public education in his retirement years," Brothers said.
While Draud will remain on the job until February, advocacy groups said the state school board should "start getting the word out" now to potential candidates who might succeed him.
"I hope the board will launch a very aggressive national search," said Robert Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. "I wouldn't want to eliminate any candidates from Kentucky, but I do think they need a national search."
Sexton noted that Kentucky's education system is entering a crucial period, facing not only budget constraints but a 2014 deadline for bringing all students up to proficiency level on standardized tests.
"We're coming up on a time when we need to get many of our schools moving faster, aiming toward 2014 when we're hoping that many, if not all, will have reached their goal," he said. "We need somebody who can help renew our ambitions and remind all Kentuckians about how important it is to continue to make progress."
Advocates also said they hope selecting a new education commissioner can go smoothly, in contrast to the bumpy road that led to Draud's appointment in November 2007.
The school board initially hired Illinois educator Barbara Erwin. But a controversy over errors in her résumé and questions about her leadership prompted Erwin to resign before ever starting work. After Beshear was elected, but before he took office, the school board then hired Draud, a former Republican state legislator, on a unanimous vote.
Young said he doubts there will be a repeat of such problems. "For one thing, we have a sitting governor in place, so you don't have that transition that we had before," Young said. "And the governor has appointed several members of this board, so certainly his voice will be heard. I think it's likely there will be no problems."
William Scott, director of the Kentucky School Boards Association, said his organizations favors having the school board work closely with Beshear and state Education Secretary Helen Mountjoy in searching for a new education commissioner.
"The person selected has to be someone all of the leaders support and feel comfortable with," Scott said. "The best way to ensure that, in our opinion, is have those groups involved in the search in some way. The state board will have the final say, but it needs to be a collaborative process."
Draud, who is from Kenton County, has been an associate college professor, superintendent or assistant superintendent of public school systems in two states, a county school board member, a principal and a teacher. He was a state representative from the 63rd District before becoming education commissioner.