Tony Smith.

Tony Smith, 48, a RiverForest resident and executive director of the Oak Park-based W. Clement and Jessie V. Stone Foundation, has been appointed as the state’s new state school superintendent.

Smith replaces outgoing superintendent Christopher Koch, who served in the position for eight years. With more than two million students, Illinois’s K-12 school system is among the largest in the nation.

The Illinois Board of Education voted unanimously to approve Smith’s contract, which will take effect on May 1. He will be paid a starting salary of $225,000, according to a Chicago Tribune report. Smith has ties with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. Last year, he was appointed to Rauner’s transition committee for education policy.

“The board selected Tony Smith for his proven track record of accomplishment and leadership in education,” State Board Chairman James Meeks said in a news release. “We know that Dr. Smith will move forward to improve and expand on the agency’s initiatives to improve teaching and learning on behalf of the more than two million kindergarten through 12th-graders in Illinois public schools.”

But the unanimous vote and laudatory statements from Meeks doesn’t necessarily translate into the state board’s complete equanimity with the decision. Board member Steven Gilford told the Tribune that he was “very disappointed that Dr. Koch is going to leave the agency” and that “I don’t think it’s really the right decision for this agency.”

Prior to his tenure at W. Clement, Smith was superintendent of the Oakland Unified school district, which serves some 36,000 students. He was hired in that position in July 2009, before resigning in 2013. The move, Smith said at the time, was to be closer to family.

In a statement posted to the Oakland district’s website that year, Smith wrote that he and his wife “have decided to move closer to family in Chicago so that we can be there to help and so that our daughters can spend time with their grandparents.”

During his time in Oakland, according to the Tribune, Smith “closed struggling public schools, butted heads with teachers unions and created more privately run charter schools in California.”

According to Jack Gerson, a former Oakland public school teacher and activist, Smith was a “proponent of the corporate agenda for education […] of charter schools and privatization, of school closures, downsizing, and union busting.”

But Noel Gallo, the former Oakland school board president who helped bring Smith on board, told the Tribune that Smith’s appointment here as state school superintendent “will be a big plus for Illinois,” noting that the former college football captain won’t be intimidated.

 Smith earned an English degree in 1992 from the University of California, Berkeley, where he played football. He earned his master’s and doctorate’s degrees from that school’s Division of Language, Literacy and Culture. His wife, Kathleen, is a native of Oak Park. Their two daughters are 12 and 10. Smith couldn’t be reached for comment. 

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