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Crist may get brushoff in education transition

Even some Republicans have questioned whether the education commissioner could handle the job.

By DIANE RADO and BARRY KLEIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2001


Even some Republicans have questioned whether the education commissioner could handle the job.

TALLAHASSEE -- State Education Commissioner Charlie Crist was supposed to be one of the key players in the reorganization of Florida's education system.

Now, he could be largely out of the picture.

Under a proposal being pushed in the state Senate and supported by Gov. Jeb Bush, a "chief transition officer" would oversee the reorganization, a duty expected to fall to Crist.

Bush would appoint the transition officer, who would serve as secretary of a new Florida Board of Education until 2003, when the reorganization is expected to be complete.

That task includes eliminating Florida's Board of Regents and setting up separate governing boards at each state university.

In the Capitol on Wednesday, the proposal was seen as a slap to the former state senator from St. Petersburg, a prominent Republican expected to run in 2002 for state Attorney General.

Crist said he spoke to the governor a few weeks ago about the reorganization and Bush told him it would be a good idea to have an "executive director" assist in the efforts. Crist said he agreed.

"I didn't run to be executive director of transition," Crist said. "I never envisioned being transition secretary. I envisioned being commissioner of education."

The governor's office said Bush did not initiate the proposal, and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan said it was not meant to undermine Crist.

But it came to light only a few days after the commissioner shook the higher education community by publicly attacking two of its most fiercely held tenets -- academic freedom and tenure.

In a letter he wrote last week to several Florida newspapers, Crist castigated administrators at Florida Atlantic University for allowing students last month to stage the play Corpus Christi, which he said depicts Jesus Christ as a homosexual and his disciples as profane and lecherous.

"How could administrators at FAU have shown such poor judgment in spending taxpayers' money for this purpose?" Crist wrote.

"Reflexively, they cite 'academic freedom' as the rationale. Of course 'academic freedom' is the final refuge in which professors hide when confronted with the absurdity and arrogance of their decisions. It is a wasteland entirely unmoored from standards, where any activity can be justified if it exceeds our 'comfort level' by challenging our preconceptions."

He had more to say on Monday.

In an interview with the Gainesville Sun, Crist said it might be time to review the use of tenure for university faculty, an academic tradition designed to protect the ability of professors to do controversial work, or make controversial statements, without fear of being censored or fired.

Crist suggested increased pay would be a better method of rewarding professors than lifetime employment.

Those statements left faculty leaders reeling.

"They clearly indicate that (Crist) is ignorant about tenure, and about higher education in general," said Richard Briggs, chairman of the Faculty Senate at the University of Florida.

"A man with such a limited vision should not be in a position to dictate education policy," said Nancy Jane Tyson, the faculty senate president at the University of South Florida.

Even some Republicans have questioned whether Crist could take on the massive task of reorganizing public education.

"The concern . . . was that it was too big of a load on the commissioner," said state Sen. Donald Sullivan, R-Largo, who heads the Senate's education appropriations subcommittee and has expressed interest in the job of chief transition officer.

"I think (the reorganization) will be a very large, very complicated job," he said. "It will be very, very technical. It will take someone who can understand a lot of legislative provisions, who can talk to faculty."

The proposal is being considered in Sullivan's committee, as an amendment to the legislation authorizing the reorganization. Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, the sponsor of the amendment, said "there are no politics behind it."

The proposal still must be approved by the full Senate and has yet to be taken up by the state House.

If it is approved, Crist said he would continue overseeing Florida's public schools and participate in the reorganization.

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