Advertisement
  1. Archive

Is she heading for Tallahassee?

Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino was interviewed in November for the post of state education commissioner, said state Sen. Mike Fasano.

Other state officials have said her name was on a list of possible candidates for the position.

"I was pleased to hear that Gov.-elect Charlie Crist's administration was interested in Fiorentino and interviewed her ... a few weeks ago," said Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "I would recommend her any day of the week."

Fiorentino is now the second Pasco name, after Sheriff Bob White, known to have drawn interest from the incoming administration. At Crist's request, White has joined a panel to review the performance of the state Department of Juvenile Justice.

Fiorentino's apparent candidacy is more controversial because it raises politically sensitive questions. John Winn, the incumbent education commissioner, has not yet resigned.

Fiorentino has ties to Crist.

She sat on an education policy council Crist set up in March during his campaign and worked on education issues as a legislator when Crist was education commissioner in 2001 and 2002.

Early in her superintendency, Fiorentino attracted criticism when she hired one of her campaign contributors, Robin Safely, as a school consultant. Safely was chief-of-staff to Crist when he was education commissioner.

Other names that had surfaced as possible candidates for education commissioner include St. Petersburg mayor Rick Baker, who said he will not join the administration; and Manatee County superintendent Roger Dearing, according to Jim Warford, a former K-12 chancellor who now heads the Florida Association of School Administrators.

Warford also had heard Fiorentino's name mentioned as a possible candidate, though he emphasized that he did not have firsthand information.

When asked Tuesday if she had interviewed for the position, Fiorentino replied: "I would rather not answer that question."

Crist's press secretary Erin Isaac did not reply to repeated messages over two days for comment.

The official silence highlights the peculiar sensitivity of the education commissioner's office in this gubernatorial transition.

By a 1998 constitutional amendment, the education commissioner is appointed by the seven-person state Board of Education, whose members are in turn appointed by the governor.

This means only the Board of Education, and not the governor, can replace the commissioner. So if Crist is to influence the selection of Florida's next commissioner, he'll have to do so through board members.

Because Board of Education members are appointed in staggered four-year terms, Crist will have to deal with a board entirely appointed by Bush, even after Crist is inaugurated Jan. 2.

Crist did not express fundamental differences with Bush on education policies during his campaign and has publicly spoken well of Winn.

But Fasano and Warford both pointed out that Crist could still want to secure his own candidate in a key cabinet portfolio.

"It is my opinion, knowing Charlie Crist, that he wants to bring his own team in - and why not?" Fasano said. "Gov. Bush has an outstanding record ... but now Charlie Crist is coming in with his own policy agenda, and I certainly hope he brings people in that he trusts and are supportive of his policy agenda."

Warford suggested that the rumors of candidacies for Winn's job could, in effect, be a signal from Crist's camp that the governor-elect is positioning to assert his authority over a Bush-appointed board.

The apparent candidacies raise questions over Winn's longevity as education commissioner. Winn, who is close to Bush, did not resign after Crist was elected. Top executive appointees generally resign during gubernatorial transitions.

Political loyalties on the board may shift when the current terms of two key members, Chairman Phil Handy and Vice Chairman T. Willard Fair, end Dec. 31. Bush had reappointed them on Oct. 27 for additional four-year terms, but it is an open question whether Crist could offer new names for Senate confirmation by the end of the spring legislative session.

Winn did not respond to a call for comment, but Jennifer Fennell, the state Department of Education's spokeswoman, said she was not aware of anyone interviewing for his job.

"He has not resigned or asked to step down," she said.

Board members moved to quash the rumors that anyone was interviewed for Winn's job.

"I'm not aware of that, nor have I heard that before this moment," said Handy, one of Bush's closest political advisers.

"Crist is not looking for anyone to replace John Winn," said Roberto Martinez.

If Fiorentino becomes education commissioner, it would leave unoccupied two years of her current four-year term. The governor would appoint an interim superintendent to serve out the term until a replacement is elected.

Staff writers Ron Matus and Steve Bousquet contributed to this article. Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at (813)909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Advertisement
Advertisement