Ex-Hillsborough schools chief seeks state post

Earl Lennard joins a field of at least two dozen vying to be state commissioner.

Published July 17, 2007

TAMPA - Former Hillsborough superintendent Earl Lennard wants to be Florida's next schools chief.

Two years into retirement, Lennard has applied to oversee Florida's public schools, community colleges, work force education and related programs.

He is one of at least two dozen hopefuls, including names better known statewide like Jim Warford, the former K-12 chancellor and Marion County superintendent, and Cheri Yecke, the former Minnesota education chief who replaced Warford.

Hoping to expand the pool of applicants, the state has extended the deadline to apply for the Florida Education Commissioner position for 10 days, until July 23. The original deadline was this past Friday.

Lennard, 65, says he was enticed by the "unique opportunity to serve and to do something that's been my life's work."

In his nine years as Hillsborough superintendent, Lennard presided over record student growth, the end of three decades of court-ordered desegregation and the early years of the state's high-stakes school accountability movement. His local career, spanning more than 40 years, began in the classroom and advanced through the administrative ranks, mostly working with agricultural and technical education programs.

The state commissioner's job has been vacant since February, when John Winn retired under pressure from the new Charlie Crist administration. Since then, Winn's chief of staff Jeanine Blomberg has held the post on an interim basis.

This is Florida's first national search for a leader since voters approved having an appointed, rather than an elected, commissioner in 1998.

Proact Search Inc., the headhunter firm hired by the Board of Education, plans to sift through the resumes and present its recommended list of finalists in August. The state Board of Education wants to have a commissioner in place by October.

Many of the names floated for the job kept away in the end. They include Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia, Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino, former Leon County superintendent Bill Montford, state Rep. Joe Pickens, head of the House Schools and Learning Council, and Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Evelyn Lynn.

The candidate pool that emerged includes heavy hitters, including former Colorado education commissioner William Moloney and former Michigan superintendent of public instruction Thomas Watkins Jr. Others might be considered fish out of water, such as a Tampa assistant principal and a retired Pinellas classroom teacher.

The job pays between $195,000 and $275,000 annually for overseeing an Education Department with an annual budget of more than $23-billion.

The job could be the first to lure Lennard out of Hillsborough, his lifelong home. Known as a country boy who has never shed his folksy mannerisms, Lennard planned to fish and spend time with his grandchildren in retirement. But he hasn't seemed satisfied. He briefly bid for a state Senate seat in the fall of 2005, but dropped out of the race barely a month after declaring his candidacy.

Lennard declined to discuss his agenda for Florida schools, noting that he's just beginning the vetting process.

He acknowledged that the next commissioner faces tough tasks, including dealing with the recent discovery of a scoring error in last year's third-grade reading scores, which has undermined Florida's high-stakes accountability system.

"It is during the trying times that the greatest opportunity comes about to impact and effect improvement," Lennard said. "The current issues we're facing provide an opportunity to move forward."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 226-3400.