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K-12 chancellor touting reforms spars with group

Members of the community organization ACORN repeatedly challenge the K-12 chancellor at a meeting to tout accountability.

By RON MATUS
Published July 27, 2004


ST. PETERSBURG - One of Florida's top-ranking education officials put up a scrappy defense of state and federal policies Monday in the face of skepticism from a predominantly black audience.

At one point, K-12 Chancellor Jim Warford and a critical questioner dueled with microphones for several minutes until Warford said, "I'm going to give you the truth, but you're not going to listen to it, because you've got your mind made up."

Warford was in town for one of a series of education fairs around the state that were designed to tout Gov. Jeb Bush's accountability on reforms and get feedback.

Monday's meeting was in the renovated Royal Theater in Midtown, home to a Boys and Girls Club chapter.

Warford opened by mentioning the reading gains - the best in the country this year - by Florida fourth-graders.

"You made history," he said.

But the audience was not in a celebratory mood. Nearly half of the 80 people in attendance were members of the St. Petersburg chapter of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, a group better known for fighting for new street lights and raising the minimum wage.

They challenged Warford repeatedly, and heatedly, on high school dropout rates, the need for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and funding for the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

But Warford, a former Marion County superintendent, gave as good as he got. When ACORN organizer Heather Partlow told Warford that President Bush slashed money for No Child, Warford shook his head and interrupted.

"No ma'am, that is not true," he said, while Partlow continued to talk. "No it's not . . . I'm sorry . . . it's not true . . . I challenge you."

"Don't tell me how to word my question," Partlow said toward the end of the exchange.

Wooooo! came the response from the audience.

"Oooh, oooh," came the response from Warford.

The chancellor attempted to soften his direct tone with smiles and self-deprecating humor about his bald head and short stature. He also shared some personal history, noting his mother dropped out of school in eighth grade.

"I understand your frustrations," he said at one point.

"The answer isn't to do away with the test," he said at another, answering a question about student frustration with the FCAT. "The answer is to pass the test."

- Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com