Brian Whiston won the state superintendent job on Wednesday in a 7-1 vote by the bipartisan State Board of Education. He and two other finalists had gone through a second round of public interviews with the board earlier in the day.
Whiston, 53, will succeed Mike Flanagan, who is retiring this summer after nine years.
"Brian on balance brings the best, strongest combination of both a game plan on how we lift achievement, some demonstrated delivery of that for improving education outcomes in the real world and a real facility to work well with all the stakeholders in education," board president John Austin told reporters.
The decision was not without tension, as some members of the board -- controlled 6-2 by Democrats -- advocated for either Oakland Schools Superintendent Vickie Markavitch or Washtenaw Intermediate School District Superintendent Scott Menzel. Markavitch was the first preference of three Democrats and Menzel was the first choice of two Republicans and a Democrat.
The board found consensus in Whiston, who had the most first- and second-choice "preference" votes. He has been superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools since 2008 and directed government and community services for Oakland County's intermediate district for 11 years.
Whiston previously had a job at the Oakland County Road Commission, owned a polling/campaign consultant firm and was chief of staff to a Republican state senator.
Board members said they like his legislative experience and ability to work with both parties while noting his school lobbyist past is unconventional for a state schools chief.
The superintendent runs the Department of Education and is a member of the governor's cabinet. But the person is hired by and reports to the independently elected education board.
Whiston, who has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in political science from Wayne State University, is expected to be paid at least $200,000 a year once a contract is negotiated. Flanagan earns $195,200.
The lone board member to vote against Whiston's appointment, Republican Eileen Weiser, said she would work with him but thought the board misstepped in not finding a true "reform" candidate.
The board's decision came amid strain with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who last week issued an executive order transferring an office in the education agency that is charged with turning around Michigan's lowest-performing public schools to a budget department whose director reports to him.
Snyder said the existing structure is "not achieving satisfactory outcomes."
Austin said the board is considering a lawsuit to stop the move -- scheduled to take effect in May -- because the state constitution vests oversight of the public education system in the board and the superintendent.
Snyder's office has said he has a "constitutional and moral obligation" to act.
Karen McPhee, Snyder's new senior education policy adviser, attended Wednesday's meeting but said the governor had no preference among the three superintendent finalists.