Ohio has a new top educator, again.
The state board of education picked Stephanie Siddens to serve as interim state superintendent. She's currently a senior executive director for the Ohio Department of Education, and she's the second person to be offered the temporary gig.
The first appointee, Deputy State Superintendent John Richard, announced his own departure less than a month after he accepted the position in July.
"I'm very honored and thrilled to be here to support the department during this transition," Siddens said.
But she may be in for a rocky ride.
Why the role of Ohio's state superintendent of education is so controversial
The Ohio State Board of Education has 19 members (11 elected and eight appointed by the governor). Their job is to focus on a long-term vision for public education. Practically speaking, that means they develop guidelines, educational standards and strategic plans. The superintendent then takes those policies to state lawmakers and local educators.
"I don’t think the political challenges of being superintendent have ever been harder," former Republican state Sen. Peggy Lehner said.
The state superintendent is the public face of education in a state that's grown increasingly divided over issues like masks in schools, remote learning during the pandemic and critical race theory.
"Everything is more polarized than anyone has ever seen it, and education is no different," Lehner said.
Neither she nor Sen. Andrew Brenner, the current chair of the Senate's K-12 education committee, knew whether the board could coalesce around a single candidate to replace outgoing Superintendent Paolo DeMaria.
DeMaria was elected unanimously back in May 2016, but Brenner said that was partly because no one really knew where he stood on various education issues.
"There were a lot of unknowns with Paolo," Brenner said. "We have had a lot of changes in five years, and student academic performance is not one of them."
The Delaware Republican wants to see a state superintendent who would take a clear position on whether the state's strategic plan – which DeMaria shepherded into existence – allows schools to teach topics like CRT.
"That’s where a state superintendent can smooth over those types of issues, and I don’t think that has happened," Brenner said.
A group of state board members agreed and tried to remove language from the resolution to hire Siddens that directed her to follow the strategic plan.
"I feel abandoning the entire strategic plan for the entire department of wducation is an affront to our children and teachers ...," Board Member Michelle Newman said. It's "incredibly irresponsible and not the correct move at all."
And Ohio Education Association President Scott DiMauro said he wasn't sure what to make of the board's fight over what he called DeMaria's "greatest accomplishment."
"Paolo united people from across the ideological spectrum. I hope we find a consensus candidate," DiMauro said. "But if they are going to quibble over language like that, I'm not sure they can come to an agreement."
Anna Staver is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.