Jeff Ekena's appointment as regional school superintendent for Mason, Tazewell and Woodford counties came a little earlier than he expected.

Ekena's first day as leader of the Pekin-based regional office of education was Monday. The 41-year-old Washingtonian spent the previous three years as assistant to Patrick Durley, the previous superintendent, who retired Friday.

Durley was appointed regional superintendent in 2016. He replaced the retiring Gail Owen, for whom he spent two years as assistant.

In 2018, Durley ran unopposed as a Republican for a four-year regional-superintendent term.

As he and Ekena were returning from a regional-superintendents meeting in early June, Durley revealed his intentions to leave office at the end of that month.

"I knew he was always near retirement at this point," Ekena said recently. "It was one of those conversations I thought I'd be having a year from now, not in 2019."

Attempts to interview Durley were futile. He had been a longtime teacher-coach in the Roanoke-Benson school district and spent five years as assistant regional superintendent for Marshall, Putnam and Woodford counties.

State-mandated streamlining in the number of regional offices of education took place about six years ago. That resulted in the current Mason-Tazewell-Woodford combination.

Chairmen of the boards of the counties the regional office covers approved Ekena's promotion.

Regional offices of education are a liaison between school districts and the General Assembly and Illinois State Board of Education.

The offices also inspect schools for safety compliance, conduct district consolidation hearings and administer General Educational Development programs, among other things.

Ekena's responsibilities as assistant superintendent included organizing professional-development workshops, overseeing bus-driver training and serving as a truancy hearing officer.

Other aspects of the job appear to be just as important but more difficult to quantify.

"Pat's great at communicating," Ekena said. "Overall, communication has been at the forefront. I want to continue on with the communication side of things.

"I welcome the opportunity to represent the educators of Mason, Tazewell and Woodford counties."

That regional office covers 30 districts and more than 80 schools. It's one of 35 regional offices statewide.

Ekena's education career began in 2005, as a fourth-grade teacher in Germantown Hills. He also was principal at Lowpoint-Washburn Elementary School and at John L. Hensey Elementary School in Washington.