IRSD superintendent confirmed yesterday as Education Secretary.

Susan Bunting’s entire public school education from kindergarten through twelfth grade took place in the building that later housed her office as superintendent of the Indian River School District.

“I haven’t gotten very far in life, have I?” she joked.

Bunting has, in fact, ascended steadily through the ranks of her career and was confirmed this week by the Delaware State Senate as the Secretary of the State Department of Education.

A Sussex County educator

The now 68-year-old Bunting was raised in Selbyville. Her father operated Smith Apparel, with locations in Selbyville and at the beaches, and did so with just an eighth grade education. However, he encouraged his daughter to seek out the highest levels of schooling.

“He was a very successful businessman,” said Bunting, who holds a doctorate in education leadership from the University of Delaware. “He was very bright, and he believed education was the key and you could never get enough of it.”

Her mother was a teacher of home economics and English, and Bunting inherited her joy for the profession. After college and several years of raising two daughters full-time in the Washington, D.C. area, Bunting returned to Sussex County and began her career in education.

 “I am a member of our local community,” she said. “And I think that’s been important to people.”

In 1977 Bunting started teaching middle-school level language arts in the same Selbyville building she went to school in and would continue to work in for the majority of her career. Two years later, state legislators created the Exceptional, Cognitive, and Enrichment Learning, or ExCEL program for gifted elementary school students, and Bunting taught that program for 12 years. In 1991, she was promoted to IRSD’s supervisor of elementary instruction, and then, due to both her aptitude and the consolidation of district resources, to director of K-12 instruction. In 2006, Bunting became superintendent of the Indian River School District, and in 2012 she was one of four finalists for the American Association of School Administrators’ National Superintendent of the Year award.

“I’m not a climber. I didn’t set out to be a superintendent,” Bunting said. “I set out to be a good teacher and do the best I could for the people I served. Somehow, here I am.”

Bunting’s impressive resume caught the eye of then-U.S. Rep. John Carney, who was recently sworn in as Delaware’s newest governor. Carney announced her nomination as the Secretary of the State Department of Education in late December.

“Susan is among the most knowledgeable educators in Delaware,” he said. “She will help us refocus the Department of Education as a support agency to help districts keep high-quality teachers in the classroom and better address the needs of their students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I’m confident Susan is the right person for the job.”

As Secretary, Bunting will oversee Delaware’s public school system and serve as an education policy advisor to the Governor. She will inherit the position from Dr. Steven Godowsky, a New Castle countian.

“One of the things people have said to me is that they are delighted that Sussex County will have a voice,” she said.

Bunting is acutely aware of Delaware’s budget issues and her role in fixing them, and said it’s the first thing she’ll tackle.

“I want to take a good hard look at the department and see if we can economize, if there’s some program or contract that we no longer need, and figure out how we can contribute to the savings that have to occur in Delaware.”

In addition, Bunting’s vast experience in education has led her to pinpoint a few issues of particular concern to her.

“We have so many students that come to us now with mental health concerns, physiological concerns and family issues. We don’t have enough services for them,” she said. “And we have so much bullying now.”

A love for IRSD

Bunting was offered the position of Secretary of the State Department of Education twice before finally accepting.

“A lot of my thinking about how we can help students is directly in line with Carney’s,” she said. “I think that’s why it was a little more enticing to leave where my heart will always lie, to a certain point, to try to help people in a broader way.”

For almost four decades, Bunting’s heart has been with the Indian River School District.

“From dinnertime Sunday night until football is over Friday night, I live district,” she said. “My children are grown, so I can attend any concert or anything a school may have going on. I believe that’s not just my responsibility, but a privilege. I love standing at the gates of a football game and wishing everyone there a good night.”

Bunting still lives in Selbyville, right on Route 113, and plans to commute to her new office in Dover. She remains emotionally attached to the IRSD, which was evidenced by a crack in her voice as she said, “I think there’s heart that comes from being a part of a community, and I value the relationship. The fact that you’re a Sussex countian, one of their own, makes a difference to a lot of people.”

Of course, the responsibility of leadership is not without drawbacks. Case in point: the recent scandal involving former IRSD chief financial officer, Patrick Miller, and the subsequent failure of a much-needed referendum.

“I was very surprised, and very disappointed,” Bunting said of learning of Miller’s alleged misdeeds, which, according to a report from the state auditor, included creating an atmosphere of bullying and intimidation in his office, subverting the safeguards of the state’s accounting system, and unethical transactions between the district and other organizations Miller was a part of.

“It was very disheartening. It was a feeling of great betrayal,” Bunting said. “We had no idea. All of the reports coming back from previous audits were good.”

Days after the news regarding Miller broke, the IRSD held a referendum, hoping to increase property taxes in order to cover the costs of significant student enrollment growth. It failed by just 30 votes.

“I’m sure people were disappointed in the district as a whole,” Bunting said. “I wish they would finish the case, because people need closure. We can’t arrest him or have him arrested; it’s all in the hands of the Attorney General.”

According to the Attorney General’s office, the matter is still being reviewed by their Office of Civil Rights and Public Trust.

“If Patrick had been golden, we would still need the referendum,” Bunting said. “But we have a wonderful business manager now, and we’re probably going to bring in an auditing firm, since we’ve always depended upon the state office to give us a warning or a heads up and we never got that.”

As allowed by state law, IRSD will give the referendum a second try on March 2.

Beyond the IRSD

IRSD has already named Bunting’s assistant superintendent, Mark Steele, as interim superintendent through June 30, by which time they hope to have decided on a permanent replacement.

“I’m so thankful to have been able to serve here all these years,” Bunting said. “It’s been an honor and a privilege.”

But duty has called her on to Dover, where she hopes to help “that child nobody else will stand up for.”

“It’s always been my burning desire to make sure that every child has the opportunity to be successful,” she said.