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Crist to have say on new education commissioner

By Ron Matus
Published January 26, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - The search for a new state education commissioner will include public interviews and involve the governor's office, the Board of Education decided Thursday after an emotional thank you to outgoing Commissioner John Winn.

The board has sole authority under the Florida Constitution to hire a new commissioner, but board Chairman T. Willard Fair said it "makes good sense" to involve new Gov. Charlie Crist and his staff.

"They will be involved," Fair said. "But they will not be voting."

Fair said neither board members nor Department of Education officials had talked with the governor's office about the selection process. But he anticipated no problems given Crist's calls for more "transparency" in government.

According to the search schedule, the board will secure a search firm in February, interview the top three candidates in April or May and hire a new commissioner in June. Fair said the search will be national.

Meanwhile, Jeanine Blomberg, Winn's chief of staff, will serve as interim commissioner.

Thursday's action was prompted by Winn's unexpected decision two weeks ago to retire Feb. 28. Winn was hand-picked for the job in 2004 by former Gov. Jeb Bush. He has done as much as anyone to shape Florida's test-heavy accountability system.

Winn says Crist did not force him out, but his decision to retire came just days after the new governor recalled the appointments of two Bush loyalists to the board.

One was Fair, who Crist re-appointed Wednesday. The other was Phil Handy, a Winter Park executive who was replaced Thursday by Akshay Desai, a St. Petersburg doctor and HMO owner.

Desai, a staunch Republican with close ties to Crist, has education policy experience as a former member of the Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, and as a former chair of the Council for Education Policy, Research and Improvement, an arm of the Legislature.

"I've been around the block," he told other board members.

Thursday's meeting was emotional for Winn, whose voice broke several times as he thanked people who helped his career, going back to the principal who hired him for his first teaching job.

Board members showered him with compliments.

"He represented the children of the state, the rural, the poor, the disabled ... better than anyone else I can think of," said Phoebe Raulerson, a former Okeechobee County superintendent.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com.