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Education shakeup has observers seeing politics at play

T. Willard Fair

By Lynn Hatter

Tallahassee, FL – The top two seats in Florida's education system have come open this week. As Lynn Hatter reports, the resignations of Education Commissioner Eric Smith and State Board of Education Chairman T. Willard Fair has led to questions over what exactly is going on.

Smith resigned from a position he's held for the last three years on Monday. During his time as education commissioner, he pushed for and oversaw new legislation raising high school graduation requirements. He was an advocate for the adoption of a national education curriculum and also helped Florida secure a federal education grant for 700-million dollars over the next four years. He has supporters, like State Senator Steven Wise, who took time out of his committee to express his thoughts on Smith's departure.

"You have really worked hard and tirelessly to make systemic changes to what we're doing in education and we really appreciate it, and the students do too, they may not know it, but you have done a great job on that.

In his resignation letter, Smith said the time has come to let Governor Rick Scott pursue his goals for education with a new leader. But some speculate that Smith was actually forced out of the job.

"There was no process. Therefore the Commissioner's resignation was prompted by the conclusion of his inability to have a meaningful face-to-face with the Governor that came some point in his conclusion that he was not going to be the Commissioner of Education."

That's State Board of Education Chairman T. Willard Fair resigned Wednesday, over the way Smith and the state Board were treated. Fair says in the three months Scott has been in office, he's made no effort to meet with Smith or the Board. And he also adds that it's not the outgoing Commissioner's responsibility to conduct a search for his replacement. Which is exactly what the State Board began doing in an emergency conference call Thursday, with Smith leading the process.

"The primary issue for today's board meeting deals with how to proceed with a commissioner search. I know Mr. Martinez has sent out a recommendation on a motion "

Following Fair's resignation, Scott finally reached out to the Board, placing phone calls to the six remaining members of the eight-member body. Board Member Roberto Martinez got a call yesterday.

"I had never spoken to Governor Scott before. It was greatly appreciated. He told me he recognized the excellent record of accomplishment and distinguished service by the commissioner, and he also told me he had called the Commissioner and spoken directly with Eric, and he also recognized the record and strong leadership of Chairman Fair."

The State Board of Education is constitutionally charged with searching for and appointing Florida's education commissioner. But Fair says the process will be a farce, because the Governor is going to do what he wants.

"Based on my understanding on all of the dynamics involved at this point, the talk about having a national search is just tricks and games, smoke and mirrors. If the governor doesn't want Commissioner Smith to be his educational lieutenant, then so be it. But it also says to me that he has decided what his education lieutenant should look like and who it's going to be. If that's the case, then why should we go through the motions of pretending that we are going to be the body that constitutionally is supposed to make that decision."

Martinez and other members of the Board said their conversations with the Governor were reassuring.

"And then he went on to say that he wanted the Board to know, he wanted me to know that he appreciated the work of the Board of Education, he understood the role of the Board of education in the role of the next Commissioner and in conducting a search for a new Commissioner, and that he would work with us to obtain the best successor for Dr. Smith."

But Fair says the Board's search for qualified candidates to head the Department of Education may prove difficult, because the pool is so limited.

"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."

Governor Scott says he'll soon be announcing new members to the Board of Education. Meanwhile, the body is moving forward with its search for a new Commissioner of Education. It hopes to have someone in place by August. Smith's last day on the Job is June 10, the last day of school.