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Published February 17 2012

Sanstead to retire after 36 years in state office

BISMARCK – State Superintendent of Public Instruction Wayne Sanstead will not seek another term and has decided to retire after 46 years in public office.

Sanstead, the nation’s longest-serving state school chief, announced his decision during a news conference in his office on Friday.

“I shall retire with the knowledge that we have done our best and that we have accomplished much on behalf of the citizens and the students of North Dakota,” he said.

Sanstead, 76, now in his seventh four-year term in the post, said he was still debating Thursday night whether to run again.

He believes he would have won another term but decided the time had come to step aside and spend more time with his family.

“This is clearly the toughest decision I’ve ever made in public life,” he said. “Public service has been my life, so the decision didn’t come lightly.”

Sanstead, who spent 18 years as a teacher in Minot, began his career in public office when he was elected to the state House in 1964. He also served as a state senator and as lieutenant governor from 1973 to 1980 under Art Link.

He was first elected as state superintendent in 1984 and has won every election for the office since. He won the 2008 election with 55 percent of the vote and is the lone Democrat in a state office. Sanstead, who joked he’s been called the “Energizer bunny of North Dakota politics,” is the second-longest serving state official in North Dakota history with 36 years in state office.

Former Public Service Commissioner Bruce Hagen, who served from 1961 to 2000, served longer. Sanstead’s total doesn’t include his 10 years in the Legislature.

On Friday, surrounded by his wife and colleagues, Sanstead highlighted his work to increase education funding, advance technology in schools and develop educational standards.

“Throughout all my years as superintendent, I have always appreciated every opportunity to meet and talk with North Dakota’s students to hear of their dreams and their goals,” he said.

Sanstead has done an “outstanding job,” and his career is a testimony of his dedication to education, said Dakota Draper, president of the North Dakota Education Association.

There is no one with a bigger heart for kids than Sanstead, said Jon Martinson, executive director of the North Dakota School Boards Association.

“He is not one that stays in his office. He is out in schools,” Martinson said. “He’s out when little kids have some function at their school, and he’s delighted to go out and interact with them. Because of that, I think he has been a wonderful representative of public schools for North Dakota.”

Sanstead said there were more than 120,000 students and 250 school districts in the state when he started his job in 1985. There are about 93,000 students today and the number is rising, but the number of districts has dropped to 183, he said.

He’s pushed for increased teacher pay and said he feels bad about the state’s 49th ranking in salaries. That will be a considerable challenge in the future, he said.

Forum archives point to other challenges during Sanstead’s years in office, including taking heat for a performance audit in the mid-1990s that criticized DPI in the areas of school accreditation, school safety and department hiring practices.

Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, who challenged Sanstead for the office in 1996 and 2000, criticized Sanstead at the time but said he voted for him in the 2008 election.

Holmberg said Friday that he would not run for superintendent again. The office is nonpartisan, but a Republican and Democrat typically run against each other.

The state Democratic-NPL Party praised Sanstead’s years of service to the state, children, teachers and the party.

“He leaves big shoes to fill, and we look forward to a new generation stepping up, who will continue to draw on his advice in leading our schools into the future,” Party Chairman Greg Hodur said in a statement.

Party spokeswoman Alison Kelly said she did not have names of possible candidates for the post that could be shared Friday. “However, we will make sure that it is a contested race,” she said.

North Dakota Republican Party spokesman Matt Becker said he knows a few people considering a bid for superintendent. However, he wasn’t ready to give names.

“I can say that we’re excited about the individuals that we’re talking to,” he said. “We feel good about the race.”

One of the rumored candidates for the post is Rep. David Monson, R- Osnabrock, a retired school administrator. Monson received his party’s House endorsement Thursday and said Friday that he’s happy doing that.

Sanstead said challenges for his successor include ensuring students are prepared to meet the needs of a more diverse and global society. There will be more stringent math and science requirements, and additional technology knowledge will be required for all professions, he said.

The superintendent of public instruction oversees approximately 200 employees within the department, the North Dakota State Library, the School for the Blind and the School for the Deaf. The annual salary for the superintendent is $102,868.


Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.