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Education Commissioner

Voters will choose among three candidates in the state's last election for this post, which will become an appointed position in two years.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


The evidence suggests the education commissioner post is losing its luster. The three candidates are competing for an abbreviated term; after two years, the job will be eliminated as an elected post.

Still, to hear the candidates tell it, this is the most important job in the state.

"In the next two years we're going to determine where education in Florida goes," said Democrat George Sheldon. "This is the last opportunity the voters will have to determine what they want in public education."

Sheldon defeated Rep. James Bush in the Democratic primary. Now he takes on Republican Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, who faced no primary opposition. Also on the ballot is Vassilia Gazetas, an educator from Boynton Beach, who is running with no party affiliation.

The biggest differences among the candidates are their views on Jeb Bush's school accountability plan. Crist favors it. Sheldon opposes much of it. Gazetas believes the emphasis on testing has become a hindrance to teachers.

"All of us want to have the best education system," Crist said. "The difference is how we get there."

Crist thinks Bush has provided a good map. He agrees with the emphasis on testing, the rewards and consequences tied to the A-through-F school grades and the awarding of vouchers to children in chronically failing schools.

Crist says he wants to help teachers, giving them more money and make classrooms safer. In his Teach Florida proposal, he seeks to lure college students into teaching careers with scholarships.

"We recruit athletes and give them scholarships," Crist said. "We ought to recruit teachers; they're more important."

Sheldon wants to pay teachers more. He also wants to help teachers by fixing an accountability system that he sees as a hindrance to them.

"Everyone believes in accountability," Sheldon said. "The real question is: Is that accountability system honest and fair?"

Sheldon wants the state to measure actual student progress over time, rather than judging schools by snapshots of achievement as is being done now. The state is headed in that direction, and Sheldon wants a hand in establishing that new system.

Sheldon calls for universal preschool in Florida to get students ready for school.

Gazetas was moved to enter the race after a middle school student shot and killed a teacher in Palm Beach on the last day of the school year. She is running a decidedly low-budget campaign, occasionally visiting schools to talk with teachers and students.

"My campaign has nothing to do with politics," Gazetas said. "It has everything to do with helping kids."

THE JOB

The education commissioner is Florida's chief school officer, overseeing a public school system of more than 2-million children in 67 districts. The commissioner also serves on the Board of Regents, which sets policy for public universities, and sits on the Florida Cabinet. The commissioner elected on Tuesday will serve two years. After that, the job becomes an appointed one because of a change approved by voters in 1998. The job pays $116,056 a year.

REPUBLICAN

CHARLIE CRIST, 44, is a lawyer and former state senator from St. Petersburg. He received an undergraduate degree from Florida State University and graduated from the Cumberland School of Law. Crist ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 1986 but was elected in 1992 and 1994. After an unsuccessful 1998 run for U.S. Senate, Crist was appointed deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, a job he resigned to run for education commissioner. He attended school in St. Petersburg and graduated from St. Petersburg High School. He is single. ASSETS: investments. LIABILITIES: none. SOURCE OF INCOME: Senate salary, law practice. WEB SITE: http://www.charliecrist.com.

DEMOCRAT

GEORGE SHELDON, 53, is a Tallahassee lawyer and former legislative lobbyist who recently resigned as deputy attorney general for central Florida, a post he had held since 1998. Sheldon represented Hillsborough County in the state House of Representatives from 1974 to 1982, when he left to wage an unsuccessful campaign for Congress. He attended public schools in Plant City and graduated from Plant City High School. He received bachelor's and law degrees from Florida State University. He is single and has no children. ASSETS: home and interest in commercial property in Tallahassee, checking account. LIABILITIES: two mortgages, bank loans. SOURCE OF INCOME: state salary through June 2000, proceeds from sale of consulting business. WEB SITE: http://www.sheldon2000.com.

NO PARTY

VASSILIA GAZETAS, 48, is an educator and mother from Boynton Beach. She received a bachelor's degree in educational administration from Northwood University. This is her first run for elected office. She came to Florida from Ohio 26 years ago. She owned and operated a school for vocational students in Palm Beach County in the 1980s and 1990s. She has worked as a substitute teacher and has home-schooled one of her daughters. She is a widow and has two children. ASSETS: home and investments. LIABILITIES: mortgage. SOURCE OF INCOME: investments and family.

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