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Patti Harrington was named Tuesday the state superintendent of public instruction — the first woman to lead Utah public schools since Emma J. McVicker's three-month stint in 1895.

Some might view that as a victory for women. But to Harrington, a 51-year-old Orem resident and current state associate superintendent for student achievement and school success, gender is no big thing.

"I'm proud to represent education — I think you'd hear that from a man or a woman (superintendent)," Harrington said. "Good work is done by good people, regardless of their gender."

Harrington edged three other finalists — Box Elder Superintendent Martell Menlove, Tooele Superintendent Larry Shumway, and Ray Timothy, state associate superintendent for Law, Legislation and Educational Services — vying to lead Utah's public school system, which includes more than 800 public and charter schools and nearly 500,000 schoolchildren.

The Utah Board of Education unanimously named Harrington to replace Steve Laing, who retired in early spring, following a round of interviews and slightly more than an hour's deliberation. The appointment is effective immediately.

Harrington, who has spent 26 years in education, is ready to work.

She wants to work with Utah's congressmen to improve the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which she says is "doing more labeling than it is helping children."

She wants to move ahead on Performance Plus, the state school board's idea for a competency-based education system. She has practice in that department: As Provo District's assistant superintendent and, later, superintendent, Harrington created the state's first program ending social promotion and valuing student competence over seat time.

The 1997 Utah Secondary Principal of the Year also will have to tackle weighty issues of growth and school funding. Utah schools, already receiving the lowest per-student dollars in the country, are looking at 145,000 or more new schoolchildren.

But first, the former bus driver and substitute teacher says she'll visit workers at the Utah Office of Education, then set out to meet personally with all 104 members of the Utah Legislature, as recommended by Utah Board of Education Chairman Kim Burningham.

"I take the challenge seriously," said Harrington, a former public relations writer at Brigham Young University. "The way to build relationships with the body is to build relationships with (individual) people."

Getting along with legislators was most commonly cited as the top challenge for a new state schools chief, according to 60 business, ethnic minority, school and other leaders interviewed by former Deputy State Superintendent Gary Carlston, an associate professor in Utah State University's elementary education department who worked as a superintendent search consultant.

Recent audits on schools supplanting textbook money and unnecessary understaffing at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and the Blind have put lawmakers at odds with public school leaders. Some have called for more school choices for parents, even private school choices through tuition tax credits. Others want outside professionals to whip schools into shape or streamline spending.

Harrington has worked on the state level just one year. But she's no stranger to legislative issues. Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, notes Harrington helped lawmakers set aside biases to create the state's school accountability system, Utah Performance Assessment System for Students (U-PASS).

"She has proven herself as one who is a state leader in instructional improvement," said Stephenson, co-chairman of the Public Education Appropriations Subcommittee. "We know exactly what we're getting with Patti, and it's very competent leadership. . . . I believe that most legislators will be thrilled to know she was chosen."

Admirers call Harrington an articulate leader, passionate advocate for students and a forward-thinking consensus builder.

She works well with parents and is more apt to allow schools to move themselves in working toward a common goal, Utah PTA President JoAnn Neilson said.

She is well-versed in curriculum and instruction, said Gary Cameron, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association.

She is "a compulsive reader" of educational research, Burningham said.

Such attributes, with a touch of grace under fire, will help her move Utah public schools forward, admirers say.

"We wanted someone not to be a superintendent of superintendents, but someone who is truly a leader for the whole education family," Utah Education Association president Pat Rusk said. "I believe she's going to be wonderful."

E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com