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Education Commissioner search marred by sunshine laws, rumors


By Lynn Hatter


Tallahassee, FL – The search for a new education commissioner is ongoing, following the resignation of current Commissioner Eric Smith. Smith's last day in office was Friday. But as Lynn Hatter reports, the search for his replacement hasn't been easy. In fact, it's been downright hard, surprising many who thought it would be a simple task to attract top talent to the state.

Former Education Commissioner John Winn will be heading up the Department of Education until a new commissioner is named. Former Osceola School Superintendent Mike Grego is filling in the number two post. The Board of Education wanted a successor named before Smith left. But ten weeks and one deadline extension after he resigned, Chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan says the board is now ready to narrow down the names and hold interviews.

"And we would interview between somewhere between four and six, if there's more than that that everybody feel strongly about, I will let the search firm come back to us with the packet of the final selected interviewees."

Getting to this point has been hard. Several issues complicated the process. First, there's Florida's open-records laws. They've been blamed for keeping some high-profile candidates from applying, and that was a problem the search firm Ray and Associates, complained about. Here's recruiter Bill Adams at an earlier board meeting.

"Why can't we just go out and get these people to apply? One of the problems is that these are highly successful people who are already employed. They are high-profile people who are already employed."

Bureaucracy aside, there was also another element at work. When Commissioner Smith resigned, he said he wanted to give Governor Rick Scott a chance to put his stamp on public education. But others, like former Board Chairman T. Williard Fair said Smith was forced out. And he said early on that because of that, finding a replacement for Smith would be hard.

"These guys have a fraternity. And I'm pretty sure if I was going to take your job, and they fired you, I'd call you and say look here, what's going on? Is it a good place to work? What's the climate? And because we have a fraternity, you're going to get the real feedback from me because I'm a part of your fraternity."
At least one high-profile state education chief said publicly he wasn't giving up his present job. Lauren Auld, spokeswoman for Indiana Education Commissioner Dr. Tony Bennett said, "thanks, but no thanks" to the offer.

"Obviously Dr. Bennett feels honored to be considered for such a prestigious position, however Dr. Bennett feels there's still work to be done in Indiana and he's committed to the students and educators here in the state."

To soften the news, Auld did credit Florida with being a reform leader.

"We took a look at some of your reforms dealing with third grade reading, and we kind of took a stand on that. Our reform agenda and the Indiana assembly last winter was one of the most aggressive in the country. Implementing school choice, vouchers, increasing opportunities for charter schools, teacher evaluations and performance pay for our educators."

Only 19 people applied by the original May 25th deadline. The list included teachers and administrators from across the nation, and even a former official from the federal Department of Education. But they all lacked something. And that "something" is what Florida Independent Colleges and University's Association head Dr. Ed Moore calls the "rock star" quality.

"My analogy was that Florida needs more like a conductor of an orchestra or a director of a movie- a person who has tremendous personality skills and the ability to work with other people that can draw upon the talent that Florida has. It's not as if Florida is absent of talent."

Moore says he thinks the board made a good call in extending the search deadline until June 6.That extension pulled in nine more people, including Virginia Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson. He supports school-choice options, is a Harvard graduate, and a member of former governor Jeb Bush's "Chiefs for Change" - a group of education commissioners across the nation focused on education reform. Then there's New Jersey's former Education commissioner Bret Schundler, also a Harvard grad and once considered a rising star in education until he was fired by Governor Chris Christie over the state's failed bid to win 400-million dollars in the federal education "Race to the Top" grant. Still, ICUF's Ed Moore says the prospects are much better now.

"They're good people. The fella from Virginia, I've heard wonderful things about him, Gerard Robinson. The New Jersey fella, Schundler these are guys who've been involved in the issues and involved in reform. I'm just surprised the list wasn't longer and that we didn't have more people clamoring to come to Florida."

The state board of education is meeting on June 20th to start interviewing candidates. And it hopes to name a successor at that time.