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Governor's Office drags on Hernando School Board appointment

BROOKSVILLE — When Pat Fagan reluctantly left his Hernando School Board seat in March, he didn't expect to be reading news stories in July about his former colleagues still hobbling along with four members.

But more than four months later, Gov. Rick Scott has yet to appoint a replacement who would serve the remainder of Fagan's term, which ends next fall.

"There's a lot of issues that are coming up right now with the budget and everything else," said Fagan, who resigned so he could still be eligible for retirement benefits after losing his job as Hernando County parks manager. "I really just can't understand it."

Superintendent Bryan Blavatt, who saw his third, and most recent, reorganization plan doomed by a 2-2 deadlock, agreed.

"There's no question it makes a difficult situation for all of us," Blavatt said. "I think it's indicative of the feeling that I get from the governor and the Legislature that Hernando is pretty much an afterthought."

The response from Scott's office: We're working on it as fast we can, and the appointment will come very soon.

One of the biggest factors in the delay, said press secretary Lane Wright, is the huge backlog of appointments that awaited Scott in January when he took the reins from Gov. Charlie Crist.

"Gov. Scott is dealing with the situation that existed when he arrived in office," Wright said.

After an election, it's common for outgoing administrations to leave many appointment decisions to the incoming governor, except when a board lacks enough members to do business, said Sterling Ivey, Crist's former press secretary who now holds the same title in the state Department of Agriculture.

"As long as the School Board can function as a quorum, there's generally not going to be a rush to make an appointment just because it's been 30 days or 60 days," Ivey said.

The terms of many boards end with the calendar year, another reason why appointments pile up, he said.

The governor is not bound by law to make appointments on a certain timetable. Scott's office never announced a deadline for the Hernando School Board applications. The 18th and final application didn't arrive until June 27.

Ivey said Crist interviewed finalists for elected bodies such as school boards and county commissions before making an appointment. Asked if Scott would be doing interviews for the Hernando seat, deputy press secretary Amy Graham said only that interviews are conducted "on a case-by-case basis."

From a local perspective, four and a half months can seem like an eternity, said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Considering various factors, though, the time isn't necessarily unreasonable, MacManus said. Scott is a new, first-term governor with many new staffers. He just finished his first legislative session and is still coping with a dismal economy.

"My guess is it's just a matter of other things taking precedence, and they just haven't gotten around to it," MacManus said. "It's not unusually long, but for the people waiting, it seems so."

Governors also err on the side of taking more time to avoid problems later, she said.

"A bad appointment is worse than no appointment," MacManus said. "Typically what we're seeing is governors being a little more cautious in local appointments because they can explode in a governor's face."

Scott has announced 228 appointments since taking office, Wright said. In the last month, Scott has made at least 38 appointments and 64 re-appointments, according to a tally of announcements on the governor's website, flgov.com.

Many of those positions are for statewide boards familiar to most Floridians, such as the Elections Commission and Transportation Commission. Others, though, are obscure or intensely local, such as the Board of Optometry and the Southeast Volusia Hospital District.

A School Board appointment should be moved closer to the top of the heap given the funding crisis and tidal wave of policy changes school districts are facing, said Edwin Benton, another political science professor at USF.

"I think it's just unforgivable for (Scott) not to make an appointment so they can be at full strength," Benton said. "The more heads thinking about this, the better."

The four members on the board have struggled through difficult decisions about how to close an $11.4 million budget gap. Blavatt recently lambasted the board for its indecisiveness and what he called micromanagement. A fifth member would provide a critical tie-breaking vote and would certainly change the dynamic, he said.

Chairman James Yant agreed.

"I know the governor is busy, but that's his job to do that," Yant said. "I think the political side of this is holding up everything."

Technically, politics shouldn't play a role at all since School Board seats are nonpartisan.

The 18 applicants for the Hernando post range from current and former school teachers to local businessmen and women with little or no experience in the field of education. They come from a diverse spectrum of political affiliations, with eight Republicans, three Democrats, three independents, a Libertarian, a Tea Party member and a Constitution Party member.

The most recent and previously unreported applicant is Ty Mullis, a designer for a Spring Hill engineering firm. Mullis, a 41-year-old registered Republican, ran unsuccessfully for the County Commission last year.

The Hernando Republican Executive Committee offered Scott its help — and created some controversy — by forming a committee to interview applicants and send a letter of recommendation. The group interviewed 13 of the 18 and chose Holly Kollenbaum, a 52-year-old Pasco County teacher and registered Republican who was expected to move to Brooksville this summer.

Given the opposition Scott has faced from teachers critical of his education agenda, Kollenbaum is more than a long shot, Benton said.

"There's no way in hell she'll get this job," Benton said. "This governor wants yes men and yes women. He's not going to make an appointment until he sees someone who won't make waves for him or attack him from the flank."

Richard Scher, also a political science professor at the University of Florida, suspects the same.

"Since he's so ideologically driven toward getting rid of public schools, my guess is he's looking for someone to upset the apple cart down there," Scher said. "It's pretty clear this governor doesn't make politically neutral appointments."

Asked about potential ideological considerations, Wright responded: "Gov. Scott and his staff are looking for people who are qualified and committed to the position they're applying for."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Governor's Office drags on Hernando School Board appointment 07/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 14, 2011 8:19pm]
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