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Herbert's new education adviser says she's terrified and 'having a ball'

Published: Sunday, Feb. 2 2014 6:20 p.m. MST

Former State School Board member Tami Pyfer sits at the Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, in Salt Lake City. She was recently named as Gov. Gary Herbert's education adviser.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — In 2009, after eight years on the Logan City Council, Tami Pyfer had decided against seeking re-election and said she was prepared to "quietly ride off into the sunset" and leave public service behind.

But that sunset ride never came. Instead, the mother of five found herself appointed to the State School Board in 2010, re-elected in 2012, named board chairwoman in December and then selected to serve as education adviser to Gov. Gary Herbert.

"It’s not how I expected my life to turn out," Pyfer said. "I’ve had a lot of support on the home front. They have a lot of confidence in me and believe that I’ll enjoy this, and so far, on day three, I’m having a ball," she said last week.

As it turns out, Pyfer's third day was also the third day of the 2014 Legislature. The timetable has forced Pyfer to learn to swim by jumping into the deep end as she assumes the role of liaison between parents, educators, lawmakers and the governor's office on issues related to education — the state's largest tax expenditure and Herbert's No. 1 budget priority.

Though there are many people on the governor's staff, dealing with any number of issues affecting the state, few topics are as universal to Utahns as education. That puts Pyfer in the forefront — or crosshairs — of discussions that impact Utah's families and children.

"I am excited and a little bit terrified at the same time because it’s a lot of responsibility and it is very high-profile," she said.

Debra Roberts, who served as State School Board chairwoman before Pyfer, said she had a conflicted reaction to learning that Herbert had selected Pyfer as his education adviser.

On the one hand, Roberts said, she was pleased for the governor for "getting an excellent deputy." But on the other hand, she felt concern for the now-leaderless school board. For the time being, board member Dave Crandall is serving as acting chairman.

"When you choose to walk away from leadership in something and feel like you're handing it into good hands and then have those hands disappear, it’s a little disconcerting to say the least," Roberts said.

Pyfer said she had begun the transition to board chairwoman — meeting with the board's executive committee, discussing various schedule changes and goals — and was excited about the direction she and her colleagues were heading. She was "stoked," she said, and getting good feedback.

But then the phone rang.

"When this call came to be interviewed by the governor, I had really some mixed feelings about that," Pyfer said. "Ultimately you look at where do you have the potential to do the most good."

Roberts described Pyfer as a great communicator and someone who consistently steps forward to serve. Since the state's adoption of the Common Core State Standards, Pyfer has been uniquely focused on helping people understand and appreciate what the national benchmarks can do for education in the state, Roberts said.

"I know it’s something the governor has wanted to have communicated clearly, what those standards are and how they will better educate students," Roberts said. "I think in the position she’s now in, she’ll better be able to articulate the challenges that are yet to come and the benefits that are coming with the changes we’ve made."

In regards to the Common Core, Pyfer said she has strived to provide good and accurate information to parents in the hope of moving the debate beyond how the standards were created — a sticking point that has led to a stagnant dialogue over the past several years — to the content of the standards that establish the minimum skills expected of students in each grade.

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