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De facto commissioner

The Board of Education's selection of the next education commissioner without any public input speaks to its contempt of school stakeholders.

Published August 21, 2004

John Winn has devoted his career to education, but the abrupt manner in which he was selected Tuesday to be Florida's next education commissioner speaks to a different credential: He was previously one of Gov. Jeb Bush's trusted policy advisers.

Little else explains the clumsy charade played out by the Board of Education only seven days after the current commissioner, Jim Horne, announced his resignation. Board members, including chairman Phil Handy, a Winter Park financier and former Bush campaign fundraiser, had expressed shock last week at Horne's resignation. At least two of them called for an exhaustive search for his replacement, which is standard procedure for most major educational positions and was notably absent when Bush appointed Horne, a former state senator.

The day Horne resigned, board member Charles Garcia, a Boca Raton investment banker, called Horne's replacement "probably the most important decision we'll ever make - picking the next education CEO for the state of Florida." As recently as Monday, Linda Taylor, the board's newest member, said that "my feeling is this is an opportunity for us to really look at where we are and where we need to go, and not to act too quickly."

Twenty-four hours later, Taylor and the six other board members voted unanimously, without a single word of debate, to pick Winn.

Winn is not, on paper, an illogical choice. He has spent 30 years in education, including work as an elementary school teacher. He is the current chief of staff to Horne and knows DOE firsthand. Horne said Winn often has functioned as "de facto commissioner."

Winn's strength, though, is also a potential liability. The DOE, under Horne, has been viewed with such suspicion that some lawmakers fought this year to keep the state's new prekindergarten program away from it. The agency has become so politicized that it has trouble conducting even basic business activities. The irregularities that have led to multiple investigations into the state's voucher programs might have been avoided, for example, if Horne had been willing to listen to concerns that were raised by some of the professionals who worked in DOE. Instead, critics were branded as enemies, and their advice was thus ignored. Worse, the atmosphere has resulted in the departure of entirely too many career professionals, the very people DOE needs to get its job done.

Handy also contributes to that poisonous atmosphere of mistrust. Last week, he used another war metaphor to describe the "battleground conditions" during Horne's tenure. It is only in such an adversarial environment, presumably, that the state board could possibly conceive of selecting a commissioner with no public input. Middle school principals often are selected with screening committees that involve teachers and parents. Universities typically form search committees that spend months interviewing and vetting candidates. As recently as four years ago, the education commissioner was elected by voters. Yet this board, faced with the selection of Florida's top education administrator, decided to leave everyone but the governor out.

Winn may excel as commissioner, and he certainly is in a position to restore confidence to the agency. Unfortunately, the way he was appointed will only add to his burden. This was a state education board, following the governor's cue, that once again treated its school stakeholders as enemies whose advice is unwelcome.

[Last modified August 21, 2004, 01:00:32]


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