Respected Pinellas School Board member Lew Williams left large shoes to fill when he died in December at 68. If Gov. Rick Scott had respected Williams' long record of contributions to public education and Pinellas County residents, he would have appointed an interim successor with a firm grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of Pinellas schools and of the needs of the community. Instead, the governor inexplicably appointed a young man who does not know Pinellas County or the school district and who only moved to St. Petersburg a few weeks ago. Glenton Gilzean Jr. had better be a quick study.
There are plenty of qualified south Pinellas residents with strong backgrounds in education, distinguished records of public service and solid ties to its neighborhoods who could serve capably on the School Board. Williams was the only black member of the board, and there are black residents with far stronger backgrounds than Gilzean who could have been appointed by the governor. Yet Scott appointed the 29-year-old Gilzean, who lived in Tampa until mid December and did not even register to vote in St. Petersburg until after he filled out his application for the appointment. Perhaps the governor who was surprised to learn last fall that this region is referred to as Tampa Bay needs another remedial lesson in local geography. It's clear he needs a bigger Rolodex.
Williams spent 35 years as a classroom teacher, school principal and area superintendent before his election to the School Board in 2010. Gilzean has been a Florida Department of Education staffer and most recently director of Educate Today, a nonprofit organization that works with at-risk youth. But he apparently had a more important detail on his resume — his Republican Party affiliation, even though School Board members are elected in nonpartisan elections.
At least two other applicants were more qualified to succeed Williams, who was a leader in addressing the needs of poor and minority students. Retired college professor James "Jim" Jackson was a credible candidate for the District 7 seat in 2010 and lost to Williams. The Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church and president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, knows the city and education issues. They also happen to be Democrats. But governors are not restricted to the applications that arrive in Tallahassee. They routinely recruit talent for key appointments, and the application is a formality. If Scott did not hear other names of more qualified possibilities, he wasn't listening.
A spokesman for Scott said the governor picked the candidate with the "most qualified record." That suggests the only qualification for the job was party loyalty. Now Gilzean has less than a year until the August election to demonstrate he is worthy of being more than a temporary seat warmer. Meanwhile, Pinellas residents should start recruiting School Board candidates who know something about the education challenges facing the district and its students — and who won't need a map to find the nearest high school.