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Schools chief named swiftly

The vote naming John Winn as Florida's new education commissioner was quick and quiet. He will replace Jim Horne, who retires Aug. 31.

By RON MATUS
Published August 18, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - With no discussion, the Florida Board of Education on Tuesday chose an insider with close ties to Gov. Jeb Bush to replace retiring Education Commissioner Jim Horne.

John Winn, Horne's chief of staff, is credited with being a behind-the-scenes architect of many of Bush's education programs, including vouchers and school grades.

He will step in when Horne resigns Aug. 31, assuming control of 2,000 employees, a $15.9-billion budget and oversight of 2.5-million students.

"I'm extraordinarily honored," Winn, 55, told the board. "I pledge to you I will lead with thoughtfulness and integrity."

Winn's appointment was cheered by state Republican leaders.

He is respectful, articulate and able to handle "the most pressure-packed moments of the legislative cycle," said Senate Budget Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

Bush said Winn helped make Florida's accountability efforts "a national model."

"I have full confidence in his ability to lead," he said.

While no one criticized Winn's qualifications, some panned the selection process, saying an education system as large and complex as Florida's deserved a national search for a new leader.

The board "may have missed an opportunity ... to get the best and the brightest from around the country," said state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, a leading critic of Bush education policies.

The board's approval was lightning quick.

After Chairman Phil Handy said Winn deserved the job, board member T. Willard Fair made a motion that was quickly seconded and, moments later, unanimously approved.

Some in the audience were unsure whether Winn had been made the new commissioner or an interim replacement, as had been expected after Horne announced his resignation last week.

"I saw the audience kind of get really quiet when there wasn't much discussion," said board member Julia Johnson. But "his work speaks for itself."

The possibility of a search to replace Horne was discussed as recently as Monday.

Member Linda Taylor said during a board workshop that there was no reason to "act too quickly." But on Tuesday she joined her colleagues, saying she changed her mind after thinking about it overnight.

"We have the person who is the most familiar with the reforms," she said. "Why go outside that?"

Winn's new salary will be negotiated in coming weeks. Horne makes $232,000 a year.

In some ways, Winn is a major change from his predecessor.

Horne, an accountant by training, was a two-term state senator before Bush appointed him in 2001. Winn is a former teacher.

He joined the state Department of Education in 1984, and served as education policy director for former education commissioner Frank Brogan and then for Bush. His fingerprints are on nearly every major education overhaul in recent years, including charter schools, private school vouchers and the expanded use of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

"Next to the governor and next to the education commissioner, nobody has had their hands more on the education policy of the state over the past five years," said Corey Tilley, a former Bush aide who worked with Winn.

To some, that's not a good thing.

Winn has "clearly carried the water for the Bush administration," Klein said. "The governor and many of the board members didn't want there to be any challenge or change of course."

At Tuesday's meeting, Horne said Winn often has served as Florida's "de facto commissioner." He also spoke to Winn's hard-nosed reputation, characterizing their relationship as good cop, bad cop.

"While a lot of folks may say he's got a hard edge, that's the role I asked him to play," Horne said.

Winn, who was born in Brunswick, Ga., moved to Tallahassee with his mother and brother at the age of three after his father died. He earned degrees from Florida State University. He is married with four grown daughters.

Winn applied for his first teaching job in Palatka in north Florida, at an all-black elementary school. It was 1970, the year before schools there integrated.

"I was young and idealistic," he said. "I felt like it was a challenge."

New challenges lie ahead: The education department must deal with a voter-approved directive to reduce class sizes, a voter-driven measure to start a pre-kindergarten program and simmering resentment over the FCAT.

Parents are confused by what some call a disconnect between the state's grading system and the federal No Child Left Behind law. Voucher programs have been stung by fraud scandals.

Now there's Hurricane Charley, which devastated schools in Charlotte County and left several other districts reeling.

An hour after his appointment, Winn quietly stepped away from the meeting to take a cell phone call about rebuilding efforts.

"I've been dealing with this for a long time," he said before another call came in. "But never as the head guy."

Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 17, 2004, 23:54:14]


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