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    Democrats delay education confirmation

    Democrats pepper Phil Handy with questions in his hearing for education board chairman. A Senate panel puts off a vote.

    By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 12, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Senate Democrats on Monday temporarily blocked the confirmation of Phil Handy, chairman of the state Board of Education, in a highly partisan maneuver designed to send a message to Gov. Jeb Bush.

    Handy seemed stunned and told reporters he wasn't sure what the committee had done when it postponed a vote on his appointment.

    The governor, however, was pretty sure what was happening to Handy, a fundraiser and adviser whom Bush handpicked to head the board overseeing all education.

    And he wasn't a bit happy.

    "Phil Handy has given a lot of his time and energy to education in this state," Bush said. "I find it hard to believe they wouldn't want to confirm him."

    The drama played out in a Senate committee room where Handy and four other members of the newly created state Board of Education appeared to answer questions posed by senators who oversee the state's education system.

    Senate Minority Leader Tom Rossin, D-Royal Palm Beach, paced in the back of the room, carefully watching the movements of committee members.

    "This guy is unqualified to be chairman of the Board of Education," Rossin told reporters. "You can tell a lot of the Republicans are uncomfortable voting for him."

    Committee Democrats spent more than an hour grilling Handy on school vouchers, education funding, teacher salaries and tenure, the newly reorganized education system, college admissions, and the Sunshine Law.

    Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, launched the first hardball.

    "We've heard of your support for increasing the salaries of people heading up the system, but what about teacher salaries?" Lawson asked. He was referring to Handy's support for a plan to pay Education Secretary Jim Horne as much as $400,000 last year. A day later the board lowered the salary to $225,000.

    Handy said he wants to create a system in which the teaching profession is upgraded and the best and worst teachers aren't paid the same.

    Asked about reports of his failure to obey the Sunshine Law, Handy said he does not believe his meetings with university presidents and individual trustees must be open.

    Committee Chairman Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, said he intends to pursue a law requiring that any meeting be open when important policy issues are discussed.

    When it was time to vote on Handy's appointment, Villalobos realized he didn't have enough Republican votes to win and postponed it.

    Senate Majority Leader Jim King, called to the meeting when the vote was derailed, said Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, "missed his plane" Monday and did not get to the Capitol in time. Diaz de la Portilla sent a letter asking to be excused from the meeting because of a "scheduling conflict."

    Diaz de la Portilla's assistant, Jeanette Nunez, said he was on his way from Miami after experiencing flight delays. She said her boss did not want a Times reporter to ever question his whereabouts again. "He feels that you're not welcome here," Nunez said.

    Later, Diaz de la Portilla told the Associated Press he was using Monday as a constituent work day, as he often does. He said he had asked and received permission from the committee chairman to miss the meeting.

    King and Villalobos said the vote will take place when the committee meets again next week.

    The committee did approve the appointments of Board of Education members Carolyn King Roberts, William L. Proctor, Linda J. Eads and Charles P. Garcia.

    -- Times staff writers Alisa Ulferts and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report, and information from the Associated Press was used.

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    From the Times state desk