Monday, February 19, 2018
Education

Tony Bennett resigns as Florida education commissioner

TALLAHASSEE — State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned Thursday, fueling controversy over the school grading system and delivering a blow to Gov. Rick Scott and the leaders working to overhaul Florida's system of school accountability.

Coming to Florida in January from Indiana, Bennett had faced mounting calls for his resignation this week after revelations that he intervened in the grading system in Indiana to benefit a charter school run by a prominent Republican Party donor.

On Thursday, Bennett said he was leaving his post immediately to avoid becoming a "distraction."

"The decision to resign is mine and mine alone, because I believe that when this discussion turns to an adult, we lose the discussion about making life better for children," Bennett said.

He called the news reports, first published by the Associated Press, "malicious and unfounded" and suggested information had been "leaked to the press" to damage him politically.

"I end my tenure with my head held very high, looking ahead, knowing that great things are ahead for this state under the leadership of Gov. Scott and the state Board of Education," he said.

Board Chairman Gary Chartrand recommended K-12 chancellor Pam Stewart serve as interim commissioner. The board will consider the proposal in an emergency conference call Friday.

Bennett's resignation comes at a particularly difficult time for the state Education Department, which is facing a narrow window to adopt new national standards known as the Common Core and the accompanying exams. The move has drawn intense opposition from tea party leaders who say standards should be determined at the local level.

At the same time, Florida's own school grading system has come under fire from superintendents, union leaders and parent groups — even as it is touted as a national model.

"The actions of former Commissioner Bennett in Indiana only served to further undermine the shaky trust Florida parents have in the school grading system here," said parent activist Colleen Wood, whose nonprofit organization 50th No More has called for a moratorium on letter grades for schools.

Stability has also been an issue. The Education Department has had three education commissioners and two interims during Scott's 31 months in office.

"We've got so many issues and items that need effective leadership and we've gone through a series of commissioners," Pinellas County superintendent Mike Grego said.

Bennett was recruited to Florida late last year to provide steady leadership after the abrupt resignation of former Commissioner Gerard Robinson.

He encountered some bumps in June, when superintendents leaned on him to institute a "safety net" to prevent school grades from crashing in light of new, more challenging state exams. Despite initial misgivings, Bennett ultimately conceded.

The exercise sparked a statewide dialogue that left some superintendents, parents and members of the state Education Board questioning whether school grades were valid or even necessary.

Shortly after, scathing emails published by the AP showed that Bennett had made changes to the school grading formula in Indiana after learning that a high-profile charter school would be awarded a C.

Bennett denied the changes, which boosted Christel House Academy's grade to an A, were motivated by politics.

"It is absurd that anyone would believe that I would change the grade of school based on a political donor or based on trying to hide a school from accountability," Bennett told reporters Tuesday. "What we did do is make sure we were getting a transparent policy right for Indiana schools and Indiana schoolchildren."

Bennett is a longtime ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose Foundation for Florida's Future has driven education policy in Florida for the past decade. He is active in Bush's coalition of state education leaders, Chiefs for Change.

He said Scott urged him to stay in the position, but he resigned to keep the focus on education.

"I do not believe that Gov. Scott, as supportive and encouraging as he's been to me, . . . should have to spend his time if things do continue to trickle out," he said.

Bennett said he did not know what might "trickle out," and added that the emails had caught him by surprise.

Scott said little Thursday but released a statement praising Bennett's tenure.

State Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, however, said Bennett's departure was the right thing if it meant maintaining integrity for the state's accountability systems.

"We need to move forward to eliminate any question of improprieties," the Trinity Republican said, stressing he had heard no accusations that Bennett had acted inappropriately in Florida.

Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia called on the Board of Education to find a strong successor.

"What's important now is that Florida quickly establishes strong and stable leadership in the Department of Education," she said. "We have so much work to do, and this is a critical time for Florida's school accountability system."

Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho, however, urged state leaders to keep the focus on policy issues like school grades.

"As long as we fixate on the who, the what goes unfixed," Carvalho said in a statement. "There should be no celebration of the commissioner's resignation. For our children's sake, let's get accountability right."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Cara Fitzpatrick and Michael Vasquez contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at [email protected]

Comments
50 years ago, Florida teachers walked off their jobs. Today’s union leaders are inspired

50 years ago, Florida teachers walked off their jobs. Today’s union leaders are inspired

Ulysses Floyd remembers February 1968 all too well.Teachers by the thousands walked off their jobs across Florida. Among their concerns: low pay, poor funding, a lack of planning time, missing materials, and more. "We were at the mercy of the School ...
Published: 02/19/18
ROTC leader shocked that accused school shooter 1 of his own

ROTC leader shocked that accused school shooter 1 of his own

PARKLAND, Fla. — The sound of gunfire still ringing in his ears after his mad half-mile sprint, Jack Ciaramello was standing with friends in a grocery store parking lot when a sheriff’s deputy approached. He asked the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High se...
Published: 02/18/18
From meek to militant: The Florida teachers strike that unsettled a nation and fueled a movement

From meek to militant: The Florida teachers strike that unsettled a nation and fueled a movement

Some teachers left goodbye messages to their students on classroom blackboards. Others cleared their desks.It was Feb. 16, 1968, a Friday, and a sign of what was coming that Monday in Florida: the nation’s first statewide teachers strike.When schools...
Published: 02/18/18
Principal of a pained Stoneman Douglas High just sent a message to his students

Principal of a pained Stoneman Douglas High just sent a message to his students

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High principal Ty Thompson exuded deep emotion and a positive view forward in his first public comments since Wednesday’s mass shooting that killed 17 people.In the two-minute video posted on the school’s website and YouTube,...
Published: 02/18/18
Hillsborough rethinks its strategy for struggling schools

Hillsborough rethinks its strategy for struggling schools

TAMPA — "Elevate," a Hillsborough County School District initiative that was to focus on seven troubled schools and use them as models for dozens more, is becoming but a memory as the district seeks instead to support all schools equally."We’re more ...
Published: 02/17/18
Plant High students commemorate Parkland victims with sidewalk messages

Plant High students commemorate Parkland victims with sidewalk messages

TAMPA — Students at Plant High School honored the victims of the Parkland school shooting with a series of sidewalk chalk messages.The chalk art carried a series of messages such as "How many times?" and "Do something. Protect us." according to a Fac...
Published: 02/16/18
At public schools in Tampa Bay, a day to mourn, assess and reinforce

At public schools in Tampa Bay, a day to mourn, assess and reinforce

While fielding calls from anxious parents after the Broward County high school shooting that claimed 17 lives, school officials in the Tampa Bay area took a close look Thursday at what they are doing to keep students safe.There are gates and locks an...
Published: 02/15/18
Joe Henderson: April Griffin won’t run again for school board. She says she means it this time.

Joe Henderson: April Griffin won’t run again for school board. She says she means it this time.

Assuming April Griffin follows through on her decision not to seek re-election to the Hillsborough County School Board, well, meetings just won’t be the same. Chances are they’ll just be filled with boring reports, proclamations and routine business....
Published: 02/15/18
‘I don’t get paid for teaching,’ says Pinellas teacher accused of inappropriate acts. Now he’s gone

‘I don’t get paid for teaching,’ says Pinellas teacher accused of inappropriate acts. Now he’s gone

A St. Petersburg High teacher has retired in the middle of the school year after students said he called them "baby," "babe," "missy," "honey," "sweetie," "little girl" and ended one girl’s name with "-licious."The Pinellas County school district fou...
Published: 02/15/18
Interim principal says teamwork will lift long-struggling Moton Elementary

Interim principal says teamwork will lift long-struggling Moton Elementary

BROOKSVILLE — Less than a month after taking over as interim principal at long-struggling Moton Elementary School, Brent Gaustad says teamwork by educators across the district has things looking up.Behavior has improved, he said, and innovative proce...
Published: 02/15/18