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    Horne takes helm of education

    The new education secretary has 18 months to create a governance system and organize a new state board.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 1, 2001


    He has received advice about whom to hire and whom to let go. Advice about "land mine" issues to avoid. And advice about how to organize a board from scratch.

    He has even gotten advice about where to go for advice.

    But as he starts his new job as Florida's first education secretary on Monday, Jim Horne is going to have to find his own way. There's no model anywhere in the nation for Horne to follow.

    "This is something that has never been done before," Horne said. "Nationally, all eyes are on Florida."

    Starting Monday, all eyes are on Horne as well.

    He'll begin work in his new office on the 16th floor of the Turlington Building in Tallahassee. The symbolism is hard to miss.

    That's where the old Board of Regents offices used to be, until the board and its chancellor were put out of business by the education reorganization Horne is spearheading.

    Horne has 18 months to create an entirely new governance system, get a new state board up and running, and wrap his arms around one of the nation's largest school systems from kindergarten through college and graduate school. All that against a backdrop of educators who question whether a CPA from Orange Park is up to the task.

    "I could understand the criticism," said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. "But given the enormity of the job, I don't think there's a human being on the face of the earth who would be perfectly qualified for this job. That's how big it is."

    The job falls to a self-described "numbers guy" who has somehow managed to balance a reputation both as hard-working nice guy, and as a very ambitious and skillful politician.

    From CPA to senator

    If term limits in Florida have done anything, they have given a shot of adrenaline to ambitious lawmakers. They need to move quickly if they are to make their mark before being forced out of office.

    Even in this era of compressed legislative careers, Jim Horne's rise has been swift and impressive. In no time, he went from virtual unknown to go-to guy in the Senate.

    Even the local Republican Party knew little about the accountant from Clay County when he decided to run for the Florida Senate in 1993.

    "I didn't know him from Adam's house cat," said Ginny Myrick, the former Jacksonville City Council member who ran for the Republican nomination that year.

    "I was the front-runner, so when Jim got into the race, my strategy was I didn't want to make any appearances with him," Myrick said. "I didn't want to help call attention to him."

    She couldn't ignore him for long. He proved to be a tough campaigner. Horne upset Myrick in the primary. He went on to score an even more unlikely victory in the general election to win a Senate seat.

    He swept into office during the time of Newt Gingrich's Republican revolution. And many thought this straight-laced guy from conservative North Florida would prove to be an implacable ideologue.

    (Myrick chuckles when she hears people question Horne's interest in education. She recalls that during their campaign, she was talking tax relief and smaller government, and Horne "talked about education, giving the same speech over and over.")

    Shortly after his arrival in Tallahassee, he was picked -- to his surprise -- to head an education committee.

    "I appointed him to education, and I think he was shocked," said former Senate President Toni Jennings. "He wanted to be in criminal justice. He wanted to be the law and order guy."

    All true, Horne said last week. But, he said, there was more to it.

    "I wanted criminal justice only because I was just getting started and I thought it would be easier; build more prisons, tougher sentences, lock 'em up," Horne said. "In education, the problems are pretty complex."

    Despite Horne's wishes, Jennings thought he might be just the guy to tackle Florida's Byzantine school funding system.

    "He was our first and only CPA," Jennings said. "I thought, 'If there's anybody who could understand that stuff, maybe it's him.' "

    Horne warmed to the task, and learned all he could about the issue.

    "Some people up here bluff their way through issues, but that's not Jim Horne," said Wayne Blanton, the longtime director of the Florida School Boards Association.

    Blanton tells a story about meeting with Horne early one morning during the 1997 special session on school construction. They had been working on the issue till about 11:30 one night, when Blanton headed home.

    "Jim said, 'Let's meet back in my office first thing tomorrow, about 7,' " Blanton recalled. "Well, I show up at 7 and knock on the door and after a few minutes he comes to the door looking pretty bad. He stayed there all night working. He slept on the couch, and, believe me, he looked like he slept on the couch."

    Senator to schools chief

    In his first term, Horne -- the mild-mannered one who seemed to prefer negotiation over conflict -- made his ambitions known.

    In 1997, the junior member began a quiet campaign for the top job in the Senate after Jennings finished her term as Senate president. Horne challenged veteran Sen. Bill Bankhead, who had been seeking the Senate presidency for a year. In an unusual compromise, the popular Jennings ended up serving a second term as president.

    The dust-up didn't result in any lasting hard feelings. Horne was given plum assignments overseeing education policy and budgets.

    But the junior senator had served notice. He wasn't content to simply serve out his time. As Jeb Bush moved into the governor's office after the 1998 election, Horne was about to make himself even more valuable.

    Horne helped steer Bush's education reorganization package through the Legislature, creating the job he now holds. In fact, when an amendment was offered that would have created minimum job qualifications for the new education chief, Horne spoke against the need for qualifications.

    Months later, Bush tapped Horne to the position he now holds, an appointment that disappointed some who expected an educator might get the job. But it was no surprise to others.

    "This show is being run by the governor and Phil Handy (the chair of the new state board of education)," said Sen. Don Sullivan, the Largo Republican who has remained friends with Horne despite the fact that Sullivan wanted the education chief job. "Jim is in lock step with them, so his appointment makes sense."

    "Some people thought it might be someone nationally renowned for their educational experience, but the governor clearly wanted someone he knows, someone who can navigate the political waters," said Sen. Buddy Dyer, an Orlando Democrat. "I think everyone knew Jim was on that list. He certainly is a good foot soldier."

    Technically, Horne only has the job for a period of transition. It's his job to lay the groundwork.

    For the next year and a half, Education Commissioner Charlie Crist will continue overseeing the state's schools, kindergarten through 12th grade. He and Horne will work together.

    Horne said he will start right off tackling higher education. He plans to visit campuses, meet with faculty and devote himself to the part of the education puzzle most affected by the reorganization.

    Then in 2002 when the education commissioner position is eliminated as an elected post, the state board will appoint the education secretary to oversee all of education in Florida.

    Let there be no doubt, Horne wants the job.

    "I'm ready to lay the bricks and finish the structure," Horne said. "Then," he added, "I want to live in the house."

    About the man

    Name: James Wallace Horne

    Age: 42

    Jobs: Certified public accountant, state senator, education secretary.

    Family: Wife, three daughters and a son.

    Home: Orange Park, a suburb of Jacksonville.

    Education: Accounting degree from Florida State University.

    Key legislative accomplishments: Was instrumental in pushing through a billion-dollar tax relief package in 1999. Led Senate negotiations on a $2.7-billion school construction plan in 1997.

    Quote: Regarding his squeaky clean image, "You want the dirt? I don't floss as often as I should. I don't always take videos back on time. And my mom says I eat too much. Now you know."

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