Education board digs in

A Times Editorial
Published December 15, 2006

Merriam-Webster describes gall as "brazen boldness coupled with impudent assurance and insolence." The book no doubt had the Florida Board of Education in mind.

The board and Education Commissioner John Winn, both products of Gov. Jeb Bush's reform agenda, are building themselves a fortress against the winds of gubernatorial change. Tuesday, the walls began to publicly surface.

To appreciate their mutiny, one first has to understand the legal and political backdrop. The Board of Education was created while Bush was governor. By law, Winn is appointed by the board. In practice, all board members were appointed by Bush, and Winn was also Bush's choice for commissioner. Their common goal is to protect the Bush education legacy.

At Tuesday's board meeting, then, Bush made a rare appearance. Not one for modesty, the governor said Florida has become "a model for our country in terms of results" and its agenda "is full of some of the most provocative and meaningful reforms in the country."

Then he laid down his marker.

"You are on the right track, and people are looking at the policies that you all have set in partnership with the Legislature," Bush said. "I hope you stay the course." Of Winn, he added: "You've developed, I think, the best team in the country as it relates to education policy and implementation."

Thus emboldened, the board launched into its own tactical maneuvers. The governor's two most unflinching supporters, former fundraiser Phil Handy and former charter school partner T. Willard Fair, are scheduled to end their terms on Dec. 31. But Bush reappointed them, knowing well that Gov.-elect Charlie Crist would begin work on Jan. 2 and could withdraw the appointments long before the required Senate confirmation.

So the board decided to up the stakes. As new officers for 2007 and 2008, the members voted Fair in as chairman and Handy as vice-chairman. This is the same Fair who earlier in the meeting told Bush: "In my judgment, there is no greater person on this Earth than you. I love you."

Winn followed, on cue, with a written statement to the media: "I am looking forward to continuing to work closely with two outstanding state Board of Education members and leaders - T. Willard Fair and Phil Handy."

Don't look for subtlety here. Winn and Handy and Fair are declaring they are in charge and warning the incoming governor not to mess with them. If Gov.-elect Crist wants to offer some of his own ideas and appoint some of his own people, he'll presumably have to ask their permission first.

Now that's gall.