Alaska school board and Gov. Dunleavy pick new education commissioner

the Alaska State Capitol
The Alaska State Capitol is seen on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (Photo by James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)

Former special education teacher Susan McKenzie will be the new commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development.

Susan McKenzie
Susan McKenzie, the new commissioner of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, is seen in an undated photo provided by the Office of the Governor. (Contributed photo)

The office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced the appointment Monday evening after McKenzie was selected for the job by the state school board following a monthslong search.

McKenzie, the director of the Division of Innovation and Education Excellence at the department, will start work April 1, the governor’s office said.

“As an educator for 40 years, my life’s work has been to improve education for students, optimizing their achievement, leading to greater future choices. I’ve witnessed the pattern of failure to support students with evidence-based practices and have been desperately determined to affect change,” McKenzie said in a prepared statement. “Our children deserve our best. Movement into higher leadership roles has been a blessing, and I’ve realized there is great alignment in my skill set and the service as commissioner.”

Under state law, the education commissioner serves at the pleasure of the school board, whose members are appointed by the governor and subject to legislative confirmation. The school board’s choice is subject to gubernatorial approval and may not be partisan. 

McKenzie replaces Michael Johnson, who served as commissioner until June 30, 2022. Since then, the education department has been led by Heidi Teshner, the deputy commissioner. Teshner will return to her position as deputy, the governor’s office said.

As head of the education department’s innovation division, McKenzie has been in charge of implementing the Alaska Reads Act, a program passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor last year. She also oversaw the education department’s special education and career and technical sections.

McKenzie taught elementary-age students in the North Slope Borough for five years and worked as a teacher for one year in Fairbanks before working in Oregon as a reading specialist and special education teacher.

She was the principal of Copper River School District — where Johnson was superintendent — from 2010-2013. She then returned to Oregon, working as superintendent of the small Gaston School District. She joined the Alaska Department of Education after that.

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