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State board wants strong leader as new education commissioner

Florida's next education commissioner needs to have room to do the job without political interference, state Board of Education members said Friday as they set requirements for the vacancy.

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"The person has to be able to deal with the political process," said board vice chairman Roberto Martinez. "But I think all of us … need to understand we need to give that person a lot of autonomy so they can function professionally with minimal interference from the political folks."

Chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan said she agreed "wholeheartedly," and had begun sending the message to political leaders. She said they understood, so long as the person selected is a strong believer in the direction Florida education reform has moved.

They also want an "administrator with experience," Shanahan said — someone who has implemented a major plan in a larger environment "than other candidates we have had."

Former commissioner Gerard Robinson, who resigned effective Aug. 31 after a rocky year on the job, had faced criticism for his limited experience in dealing with large bureaucracies while Virginia secretary of education. Robinson also was seen as Gov. Rick Scott's man, having been hand-picked by the governor, who forced out well-regarded commissioner Eric J. Smith.

As the board pondered its job description, a coalition of civic and parent groups agitated to be heard about what type of leader the state education department needs. The coalition, which included the Florida PTA, NAACP and LULAC, set several criteria it hoped to see, such as collaboration with all interested parties in restructuring the state's accountability system.

After listening to the board deliberate, representatives from the groups were optimistic.

"I am particularly pleased to see the statement for having dialogue with all stakeholder groups," said Rosa Castro Feinberg, LULAC state commissioner for education policy.

Florida PTA executive director Jean Hovey called the board's action a start.

"We believe that parents and teachers should be at the table when selecting the new education commissioner," Hovey said, noting that she planned to reiterate that message when meeting with Scott next week. "Hopefully, he will listen."

The board set an application deadline of Sept. 27. Bill Adams of the search firm Ray and Associates said he had received a handful of applications and was actively recruiting.

The firm plans to next brief the board on the search on Sept. 24.

In other business, Shanahan resigned as chairwoman, saying she needed to spend more time with her own business. Gary Chartrand, who serves on the board of a Jacksonville charter school, was selected as new chairman.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at

State board wants strong leader as new education commissioner 09/07/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 7, 2012 11:28pm]
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