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R.I. Chief Deborah Gist's Fate Uncertain as Contract-Renewal Deadline Passes

Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist's future with the state is uncertain after the state Board of Regents missed a deadline at the end of last month for renewing her contract, which expires this summer, Rhode Island Public Radio reported Jan. 2.

The deadline's passage doesn't definitively mean that Gist is on her way out—a spokesman for the state education department, Elliot Krieger, told the radio station that the state board can keep Gist by agreeing on a new contract instead of renewing her present one. But it does create uncertainty for Gist's long-term future in the state, where she was first appointed to the commissioner's role in 2009. 

The state elected a new governor last November, Democratic Gov.-elect Gina Raimondo, who hasn't it made it clear yet whether she wants Gist to stay on the job. (In Rhode Island, the governor appoints the Board of Regents members, who in turn pick the state chief. The governor votes for the appointment of the K-12 commissioner along with the Regents, so the chief executive has a lot of influence over the selection of a commissioner.)

In November, Raimondo said that she wanted all heads of state agencies to "essentially resign and reapply." Gist indicated at the time that she would like to stay on as commissioner under Raimondo, who will be inaugurated Jan. 6.

As state chief, Gist has successfully pushed for Rhode Island to adopt a new school funding formula and to lift the cap on charter schools, and she also oversaw the state's $75 million federal Race to the Top grant. But she has also battled teachers' unions over the role of tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards in teacher evaluations. The state pushed back the start date for test scores to be used in teacher evaluations until 2017, and lawmakers also imposed a moratorium on using test scores in decisions about student graduation.

During the 2014 gubernatorial campaign, unions attacked Raimondo for her work to change public employee pension systems. On education issues, Raimondo struck what some saw as a conciliatory note with teachers—in her campaign K-12 blueprint, Raimondo said that teachers were often bedeviled by unclear expectations and a lack of support, and added that "too often, our teachers are not a part of the conversation."

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