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.
"The debate hopefully is moving forward as people see them in the classroom being implemented," she said.
Roberts said she hopes Pyfer's experience as a former school board member can help with the perceived divide between Utah's government and state educational officials. Roberts said she has great personal respect for Pyfer's predecessor, Christine Kearl, but added that Pyfer's experience as an elected official gives her a unique perspective on the needs of families.
"I think her experience as a board member will help her understand the constitutional role of the state board to a deeper level and hopefully bridge that gap to an even greater degree," she said. "I think Tami will bring that experience of representing a constituency and representing the voters of Utah, and especially representing the children of Utah."
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the Utah Education Association, said Pyfer's background as an educator — teaching special education courses for roughly a decade at Utah State University — gives her a unique capacity to hear all sides of an issue.
"I think (Gov. Herbert) got the best of both worlds actually, someone who has an in-depth knowledge of practice and what it’s like to be an educator, and also someone who has served on the school board," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. "I think that she will be able to bring folks together to share ideas and come up with the best solutions and recommendations."
When asked what message Pyfer's selection sends to the education community, Roberts said she hopes it's indicative of Herbert's support of the work of the State School Board.
"I can’t read his mind, so I don’t know that," she said. "But I would hope that would be the message he’s sending."
Roberts, who has served as a State School Board member under four governors, commended Herbert for the steps he's taken toward unified goal setting between lawmakers and educators. She said the appointment of a former State School Board member to the governor's office suggests that cooperation will continue, if not improve.
She also mentioned the 66 by 2020 initiative, which calls for two-thirds of Utah's adult population to hold a degree or certificate by 2020, and well as the Governor's Education Excellence Commission as positive actions that have helped policymakers work together to help students succeed.
"I think it’s probably had more strategic planning and strategic goal setting behind it than anything I’ve seen come out of the governor’s office in my time on the board," Roberts said.
Pyfer said she's been impressed with the work of the commission in laying out clear goals for education in the state. Those goals, along with similar recommendations from the Education Task Force, State School Board and Utah Board of Regents, suggest that policymakers are beginning to find a common vision to work toward, she said.
"A lot of things seem to be coming together right now," Pyfer said. "We agree on a lot of things, and I think the Education Excellence Commission has given the stakeholders and the governor’s office an opportunity to have this in writing."
It was a combination of Pyfer's experience and personality that made her stand out, Herbert said. He needed someone who would push and encourage others to do more, which he said is personified by Pyfer.
"She knows what it’s like to be in the political arena and have to deal with politicians," Herbert said. "She has a tremendous background and understanding, and as we go forward that background, coupled with her personality, is going to help us move the bar."
Pyfer said her goal is to get out into the state and identify both the needs and the successes of Utah's schools. She said the conversation surrounding education in Utah tends to focus on challenges and failures, but there are many successful efforts at the local level that could potentially be used as a blueprint for other areas.
"If you looked at what people hear side by side, it’s all the problems with public education," she said. "Let’s start finding these really great things that are working and put them out there for people to see."
Pyfer also said she feels a responsibility to do her homework by keeping up with the latest research and evidence-based practices that lead to student success.
"I just want to be able to say, 'I’m prepared. I’ve done my homework. Here’s what I think will benefit the students in the state of Utah,'" she said. "And then I want to be able to help move those kinds of things forward."
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