Jay Inslee made his first major hire as governor-elect on Thursday, tapping Renton schools chief Mary Alice Heuschel to be his chief of staff when he takes office in January.

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Gov.-elect Jay Inslee made his first major hire Thursday, tapping Renton schools chief Mary Alice Heuschel to be his chief of staff when he takes office in January.

In a news conference in Seattle, Inslee called Heuschel the “perfect match for the type of management that we want to bring to the state of Washington.” He pointed specifically to graduation-rate increases and the use of data during Heuschel’s six and a half years leading the 15,000-student district.

The announcement came as a surprise: Heuschel is well-known in the state education community but did not play a formal role or even contribute to Inslee’s campaign and was barely on anyone’s political radar until being named one of his transition-team leaders earlier this month.

The incoming governor described his choice for the $165,000-a-year job as “about as far away from status quo as you can get.”

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The two met less than a year ago, as Inslee’s campaign was planning an event to unveil his education plan, according to Inslee spokesman Sterling Clifford.

Searching for an innovative public school as a backdrop for the announcement of the plan, which included a call for more creativity within the existing public-school system, the campaign settled on Renton’s Talbot Hill Elementary. The school participates in the national MicroSociety Program, where students elect their own government officials, a treasury oversees a banking system and school-based courts determine law violations.

Heuschel introduced Inslee at the April event, and they talked a few more times during the campaign, Clifford said.

Inslee was particularly impressed with her leadership style and focus on using research-based strategies, which lined up with his campaign pledge to streamline government, Clifford said.

But the governor-elect said he did not seriously consider Heuschel as a chief of staff until she joined his transition team the week after his win over Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna.

“As I looked around, I couldn’t find a better match for what we think the state needs and what I hope to offer as governor,” he said.

Heuschel, 51, grew up in Rhode Island and began her career as a special-education teacher.

She served as deputy superintendent of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Washington state for six years in the early 2000s, before going to Renton, where in 2011 she was one of four finalists for national superintendent of the year.

Last year, she unsuccessfully ran for a spot on the Board of Commissioners of Valley Medical Center. She lost to a candidate who promised to oust CEO Richard Roodman.

Heuschel holds moderate views on transforming education. Like Inslee, she opposed the recently-approved Initiative 1240, which will bring charter schools to the state. But unlike Inslee, she supports the idea of charters, which are public but independent.

As chief of staff, Heuschel will run Inslee’s office, control access to him and coordinate the various Cabinet agencies, among other responsibilities.

Inslee will announce more Cabinet posts as he determines them, Clifford said.

Heuschel, meanwhile, said she’s working on transitioning out of the Renton job.

In a letter to school-district staffers, she said the decision came “with equal parts profound sadness and heart-pounding excitement, and not a small measure of high anxiety thrown in. …

“This call to serve at the state level and to accept new challenges, as well as an enormous opportunity to lead, influence and impact public education and reform state government,” she wrote, “is something I can’t decline.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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