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Education board close to naming chief
The first round of interviews for Florida commissioner ends with a clear favorite.
By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 19, 2007
TAMPA - The Florida Board of Education stopped just short of naming a new education commissioner Tuesday, but signs strongly point to Eric J. Smith, a former schools superintendent in North Carolina and Maryland who has been considered a rising star in accountability circles.
After interviewing all seven candidates Monday, three board members said Tuesday morning they were ready to name a new commissioner, pronto.
A tally by the board's search firm Tuesday showed Smith was the only one who made the short list for all seven board members.
"He was heads and shoulders above every other candidate," board member Kathleen Shanahan said.
But the board still voted 4-3 to whittle the list to three.Smith was joined by Cheri Yecke and Joseph Marinelli.
"You need to do more than one interview," said board member Linda Taylor. "This is too important a decision to rush into."
Yecke is Florida's K-12 chancellor and a former education commissioner in Virginia and Minnesota. Marinelli is a regional superintendent in New York.
Smith, 57, began his teaching career in Florida. He was superintendent in Charlotte, N.C., in 2000, when the Council of Great City Schools named him educator of the year. He's now a senior vice president with the College Board.
"I have a lot of respect for the other candidates," he said. The board still has "a tough call."
The board scheduled a second round of public interviews on Oct. 8. Board Chairman T. Willard Fair said a new commissioner is likely to be named immediately afterward.
Florida's education commissioner oversees 2,700 employees, helps shape a $24-billion budget and drives policy for 2.7-million pre-K-12 students and 170,000 teachers. The next one likely will get paid at least $255,000 a year, which is what the last permanent commissioner, John Winn, made.
The new commissioner will face statewide budget cuts and a student population that is among the poorest and most racially diverse in the nation. He or she will also inherit a thorny public relations challenge, given persistently poor graduation rates and criticism from teachers about the test-heavy accountability system installed by former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"This is a humongous job," said Fair, a die-hard Bush ally who was re-appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist. "You can't do this job ... if you don't have the ability to do 10,000 things at one time."
Crist recently interviewed candidates and talked to some board members. His influence was apparent.
Along with some stock questions, members asked each candidate how they would better relations with stakeholders. It was an obvious nod to the long-running complaint that Bush's policies were ramrodded into place with little or no discussion from teachers, administrators or parents.
The board wants a commissioner who "can galvanize the education community," said member Akshay Desai, a St. Petersburg doctor and businessman and Crist appointee.
Shanahan included no other names on her short list. In making the pitch for an immediate hire, she was joined by Desai and Miami lawyer Roberto Martinez.
In Tuesday's tally, Yecke made four short lists, and Marinelli made three.
The candidates with arguably the deepest Florida ties, Jim Warford and Earl Lennard, did not make the cut. A state teachers union representative said those two candidates were "the ones we could live with."
Warford, a former Marion County superintendent who now heads the Florida Association of School Administrators, did not get a nod from any board members. Lennard, who retired as Hillsborough's superintendent two years ago, got two.
Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or firstname.lastname@example.org For profiles and other information about the commission candidates, visit the Times' Gradebook blog at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.