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Gov. Scott's push-out of education commissioner angers longtime Jeb Bush ally

Gov. Rick Scott called members of the state Board of Education this week to smooth feathers ruffled after Education Commissioner Eric Smith suddenly announced his resignation on Monday.

Smith, who had strong support from board members, lawmakers and former Gov. Jeb Bush, said in a written statement that he was stepping down June 10 so that Scott could have input "on the type of leader to pursue his goals for education." He declined to comment further.

But longtime board chairman T. Willard Fair of Miami, a Bush ally, immediately fired off a letter to fellow board members, expressing anger over Scott's actions.

"It is distressing that the Governor made no effort to meet with Commissioner Smith, at any time, since his Inauguration," Fair wrote. "Therefore, the Governor cannot know whether Commissioner Smith would have been the right person to carry his educational priorities forward."

Fair said he was also upset by Scott's decision to leave the Board of Education out of the mix, since it is the board's duty under the Florida Constitution to appoint the commissioner.

In Tampa on Thursday, Scott dodged a reporter's question about why he wouldn't meet with Smith, but he said Smith "has done a great job."

"I will be working with the Board of Education to find a new commissioner," he said. "It's going to be somebody that believes the same way I do."

In Tallahassee, Smith said he didn't agree with Fair's interpretation of events, but he declined to comment when asked how Fair might have gotten the wrong idea. "It was my decision to resign," he said.

Board of Education members said Thursday that Scott had told them in phone calls this week that he recognized Smith's accomplishments and wants Florida to continue making strides in improving its schools. They cited their conversations with Scott during an emergency teleconference to begin a national search for Smith's successor.

Board member Roberto Martinez of Miami, who said he had never talked to Scott before, said the new governor also told him he recognizes the board's role in selecting the commissioner, and he will help the board find the best replacement for Smith.

"It was a very encouraging phone call," Martinez said.

Martinez sent a letter to fellow board members Tuesday, saying they should immediately begin the process of hiring a new commissioner even though the seven-member board has three vacancies that have yet to be filled by Scott.

Fair's term expired Dec. 31, but he was staying on, per tradition, until Scott appointed his replacement. He announced his resignation in the same letter in which he slammed Scott. Without Fair, the board is down to four members.

"As my final act as Chairman," he wrote, "I resoundingly reject Commissioner Smith's resignation."

Board member Kathleen Shanahan said Scott told her his appointments are imminent.

The board voted to have the Department of Education provide a list of up to three search firms. The board will pick one firm at its next meeting, which could come as soon as next week.

Martinez said he wants a new commissioner in place by the time the next school year begins in August.

Times staff writers Tom Marshall and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Gov. Scott's push-out of education commissioner angers longtime Jeb Bush ally 03/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2011 11:06pm]
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