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Youngkin appoints new superintendent; Balow will continue to be paid

Tennessee school official Lisa Coons will replace Jillian Balow as superintendent of public instruction in Virginia

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) chose Lisa Coons of Tennessee to lead the Department of Education. (John C. Clark/AP)
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Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Wednesday announced the appointment of a new state superintendent of public instruction to replace Jillian Balow, who resigned this month but will be paid for another year.

Tennessee Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons will replace Balow, who was appointed by Youngkin (R) in January 2022. Balow did not give a reason for her departure but said she planned to continue to work with Youngkin’s administration as a consultant.

A confidential settlement between Balow and the state, first reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, offers a look into her abrupt departure. In the settlement, which was signed Feb. 28 and obtained by The Washington Post, the state agreed to pay Balow $266,213 in salary payments over the next year. In exchange, Balow agreed not to file legal action against the state.

“The Governor and the Superintendent have agreed that the Superintendent will resign from her position,” the settlement reads. “The Parties now desire to fully and completely resolve any outstanding issues between them and to ensure that they have amicably resolved and settled all possible differences, claims, or matters related or pertaining to, arising from or associated with the Superintendent’s separation from her employment.”

Along with the salary payments, Balow will be paid more than $22,000 for health-care costs and more than $10,000 in unused vacation and sick time.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter declined to comment on the agreement, and Balow could not immediately be reached on Wednesday.

Virginia Democrats questioned the agreement Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said he was stunned by Balow’s severance deal. “I have never, ever heard” of a governor providing such a golden parachute to an appointee who resigned, he said.

“I can’t see how he can ever complain about people getting welfare again,” Saslaw said.

A person familiar with the settlement who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the matter, said Balow is a constitutional officer, which is different from other appointees. Because of her designation, it was possible that she could make the argument that the constitution says her term is the same as the governor’s, meaning she should be paid for the full four years.

Rather than test that in court, they reached a settlement, the person said.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, agreed that the designation of Balow’s position allowed her to make the argument that she should be paid for her term, but the move was unique.

“I don’t think it’s very common, and in some ways it seems kind of unorthodox,” he said.

The settlement includes a nondisclosure agreement prohibiting Balow from discussing the terms of the settlement with anyone other than her spouse, attorneys and financial advisers.

“I don’t think this is a transparent way to operate the state of Virginia,” Tobias said. “You want to be as open as you possibly can. This looks like a fair amount of secrecy, and it makes people uncomfortable.”

In a statement Wednesday, Youngkin congratulated Coons, as well as Jeremy Raley, former Goochland County superintendent, who was appointed Education Department chief of staff. Youngkin also announced the appointment of Dale Sturdifen, a former Mecklenburg County school board member, to the state Board of Education.

“I’m pleased that education leaders like Dr. Lisa Coons and Dr. Jeremy Raley have decided to join our team and further our commitment to empower parents, restore excellence in education, and address catastrophic learning loss in our K-12 system,” Youngkin said in a statement.

Coons will be coming into a department that has faced some controversies over Youngkin’s first year in office, including challenges to the ongoing revision of the state’s curriculum standards for history and social studies, backlash over “model policies” that would limit the rights of transgender students, and a school funding error that required correction by the state legislature.

“The governor has set a bold academic agenda that puts students first and empowers families to help set priorities for their children,” Coons said in a news release Wednesday announcing her appointment. “We have an opportunity in Virginia to be the country’s best state for education, and we’ll achieve that vision through partnerships with families, educators and school division leaders.”

Coons most recently served as chief academic officer for the Tennessee Department of Education. She has also worked as an executive officer of division priority schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools and executive director of instructional leadership at the Tennessee Department of Education.

“She has demonstrated success in addressing learning loss, creating and implementing evidence-based literacy policy and practices, and building strong partnerships with teachers, communities, school and division leaders, and parents,” Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said in the news release.

Coons was also named as a finalist for Nebraska’s top education position by a search committee last week, and was supposed to be interviewed for the role at a public meeting March 30. A spokesperson for the Nebraska Department of Education said staff was aware that Coons had accepted the Virginia job, but did not know specifics on when she withdrew from consideration in Nebraska.

Coons’s appointment is effective April 17. Balow’s resignation was effective March 9, and her severance will be paid until March 2024.