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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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State selects school chief
A College Board vice president is chosen to lead the 2.7-million-student system.
By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
Published October 9, 2007
Incoming Commissioner Eric J. Smith describes himself as a "data nut."
TAMPA - The state Board of Education picked a new education commissioner Monday, choosing a former superintendent from out of state to be the first to lead Florida schools in the post-Jeb Bush era.
The 7-0 decision won't be finalized until a contract is worked out, but Eric J. Smith, 57, said he anticipated being on the job in Tallahassee by year's end. Now a senior vice president at the College Board, he'll be the first permanent commissioner since February, when Bush ally John Winn resigned under pressure after a rocky, 30-month stint.
"It was evident that he's done his homework" about Florida, said board member Donna Callaway. "I think our problem is going to be hanging on to his coattails as he moves forward."
Gov. Charlie Crist applauded the decision, saying in a written statement that Smith "has proven his leadership ability again and again by repeatedly increasing student learning and achievement."
It's unclear how much Smith will make, but Winn made $255,000 a year.
Smith's task is monumental.
Florida's school system is massive, with 2.7-million students and 170,000 teachers. It's among the poorest and most racially diverse in the country. And its politics couldn't be more fractured.
Many teachers hate the test-heavy accountability system put into place by Bush, and both critics and supporters can find ammo in statistics: Florida's graduation rate, long one of the worst in the nation, continues to stagnate between 60 to 70 percent. But in early grades, Florida students are making nationally recognized strides in reading and math.
Smith -- bespectacled, soft spoken and a self-described "data nut" -- said Florida's bitter divide over school policy "doesn't necessarily have to be that way." In Monday's afterglow, he chose to look on the bright side.
"Whenever you have groups or individuals who are passionate about education, that's a preferred place to be than total apathy," he said.
The board's decision came just minutes after it interviewed Smith and two other finalists at the Tampa Airport Marriott. The other finalists were Cheri Yecke, Florida's K-12 chancellor and a former education commissioner in Virginia and Minnesota; and Joseph Marinelli, a regional state superintendent in New York. After the first round of interviews three weeks ago, Smith was the only one of seven candidates to earn votes from all seven board members.
Smith began his career as a teacher in Central Florida. He's had his ups and downs.
In 2000, he was superintendent of the 100,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., district when the Council of Great City Schools named him educator of the year. Smith earned kudos for boosting overall test scores while narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students.
Former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt said Smith was one of the best superintendents the state ever had.
"He is apolitical personally. I don't even know his politics. What I know is, he produced," said Hunt, a four-term Democrat. "He continued to build a great school system with strong public support, where students were performing strongly. And somehow, he kept people together behind that."
Two years later, Smith brought high hopes with him to the top job in Anne Arundel County, Md, a district of 75,000 students. But he quit in 2005 after rifts with teachers and school board members. At the time, he had nine months left on a four-year contract.
The Anne Arundel teachers union did not return calls from the St. Petersburg Times. But Washington Post stories at the time said a union survey showed dissatisfaction with Smith's leadership. "Teachers perennially accused him of increasing the workload without adequately raising their pay," one story said.
Citing other news reports, board member Callaway asked Smith why some critics used terms like "arrogant" and "single minded" to describe him. When Smith said he didn't have a good answer, Callaway offered one for him.
"I would have equated that to your sense of urgency" in helping kids in need, she said.
In the letter he submitted to the search firm, Smith wrote that he's a "leader who is neither intimidated nor deterred by controversy surrounding change."
He also wrote that there must be "an unflinching resolve" to closing the achievement gap, and that doing so is "not just about choosing the right strategy but having the will to assure that the strategy succeeds."
At the College Board, a nonprofit group best known for overseeing the SAT and Advanced Placement tests, Smith has focused on better preparing high school students for success in college. His work in that arena may dovetail with what appears to be the next major area of focus for Florida policymakers.
"His involvement in College Board and his leadership bringing AP to disadvantaged students, to minority students, is a plus for me," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs the Senate Education Committee.
Other key players, though, offered a more reserved congratulations.
"By all accounts, Mr. Smith has shown in his previous positions that he is an independent thinker willing to unsettle the apple cart," Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the House minority leader and a leading critic of Bush's accountability system, said in a written statement. "I hope he is ready to do that in Florida."
Hometown: Lives in Manhattan; born in Madison, Wis.
Family: Married, two adult children
Experience: Senior vice president-college readiness, the College Board (2006-present); superintendent, Anne Arundel County, Md., public schools (2002-06); superintendent, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.,schools (1996-2002); superintendent, Newport News, Va., public schools (1992-96). Also worked in the school systems of Danville, Va.; Volusia County; and Orange County, Fla.
Education: Doctorate in curriculum and instruction, University of Florida; master's degree in school administration, University of Central Florida; bachelor's degree in physical science and education, Colorado State University
Affiliations/honors: College Board, chairman, Board of Trustees (2002-04); North Carolina Superintendent of the Year (2002); Urban Educator of the Year, Council of Great City Schools (2000)