In his second term, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is going a different direction with his choice of education commissioner. Instead of nominating someone with no classroom experience, the governor decided to nominate interim commissioner Dianna R. Wentzell, who has been an educator in Connecticut for 25 years.
At a press conference outside his Capitol office, Malloy said Wentzell has the right “temperament” and “demeanor” for the job.
Wentzell did not initially apply for the job. Malloy said he asked her to apply after getting to know her and her abilities.
Wentzell, 50, has been acting as interim commissioner since the departure of Stefan Pryor at the beginning of the year. She began her career teaching social studies and directing programs for gifted students, according to her biography on the state’s website. Before joining the state Education Department she was assistant superintendent of schools in Hartford.
“I think [she’s] a great candidate, who has the potential of sharing herself with others and having others share themselves and their aspirations, as well as some of the difficulties that they face,” Malloy said.
He said the biggest factor in choosing Wentzell was “the working relationship that has grown up between the commissioner designee, myself, and my administration and my understanding of her core competencies.”
Malloy faced harsh criticism from the state’s two teacher unions during his first term for choosing Pryor, a lawyer with an economic development background who also co-founded a New Haven public charter school.
Last summer, a coalition of state unions adopted a resolution that would require an Education Commissioner to have the same professional experience of a school superintendent. The symbolic requirement was a direct shot at Pryor, who did not have a doctorate in education or classroom teaching experience.
Melodie Peters, president of AFT Connecticut, said Wentzell’s educational background was crucial to the union’s support. She said one of the biggest concerns for them was classroom experience.
“Not just being in a classroom and knowing what the four walls look like, but actually having the experience of teaching students,” Peters said. “That was huge and she brings that to the discussion. I mean, she gets it.”
She said that Wentzell has proven herself over these past four months to be a good listener, which is “a fundamental element for any partnership — and one that fosters the mutual trust and respect demanded of her position.”
Connecticut Education Association President Sheila Cohen said she is pleased that Malloy “acknowledged the voice of public school teachers regarding their desire that the next commissioner be a public school teacher.”
Malloy said there are no more big changes coming to education and he’s looking to Wentzell to continue to implement the big changes that were approved over the past few years.
Connecticut approved a big package of education reforms in 2012 that have been rolled out over past few years. That’s in addition to implementation of the Common Core State Standards and a new assessment tool.
Malloy said Wentzell will help maintain continuity in the department.
Wentzell’s salary will be $192,500 and she will still need to be confirmed by one chamber of the General Assembly.