Print URL:

Bennett resigns, says leaked emails were politically motivated

Tribune staff
Published: August 1, 2013 Updated: August 1, 2013 at 02:38 PM
Tony Bennett, who lost a re-election bid last November in Indiana, was hired by Florida in December.

TALLAHASSEE - Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett stepped down Thursday after allegations that he bumped up the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor during his last job as Indiana's elected schools chief.

"I asked Gov. Scott to accept my resignation and he did," Bennett said at a morning news conference, where he came off angry, sad and defiant in turn.

The governor and Florida's schoolchildren "don't deserve this distraction," he said.

Scott stuck up for Bennett while talking with reporters in South Florida on Thursday morning, saying the outgoing education chief did a good job. Scott said he was pleased with Bennett's work and that he did not ask him to resign.

Bennett told reporters he recommended that Pam Stewart, currently chancellor of public schools, be named interim commissioner.

He also said he would ask the Indiana inspector general to look into flaws in that state's grading system that he said spurred him to change the charter school's grade.

"That wasn't rigging anything," he said, adding that the grading flaw affected as many as 13 schools. "We did the right thing."

He also questioned the timing of the release of emails that disclosed his involvement in the grade change.

"It's obviously politically motivated," he said. "Maybe I shouldn't say that. Maybe I should say I learned my lesson and not ascribe motives to things. It's a little hard to do that right now."

Emails published earlier this week showed Bennett and his Indiana staff scrambled last fall to make sure Christel DeHaan Academy received an "A," despite poor 10th-grade algebra scores that initially earned it a "C."

Indiana, like Florida, ranks schools using A-F grades. There, the grades determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. The grades also help determine how much state funding schools receive.

After Bennett learned about a likely low grade for Christel House, he fired off a Sept. 12 email to his chief of staff.

"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote. "They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work."

Sen. John Legg, the Lutz Republican who chairs the Florida Senate's education committee, released a statement Thursday that didn't mention Bennett's name.

Legg said he was "confident the State Board of Education and Governor Rick Scott will work aggressively and swiftly on finding a new Commissioner of Education for our state."

Rep. Betty Reed, a Tampa Democrat and retired teacher who serves on the House education committee, said the news of Bennett's leaving surprised her.

"I thought he would have been vetted really closely before he was hired," she said.

Reed said she had no problems with Bennett during the time he was commissioner.

"As far as Mr. Bennett as a person, I liked him," she said. "He came by my office, asked a lot of questions about the previous year . He seemed like a very genuine person."

Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia learned about Bennett's resignation while giving a talk Thursday morning to the district's principals and interrupted her speech to announce it.

"What's important now is that Florida quickly establish strong and stable leadership in the department of education," she said. "We have so much work to do and this is a critical time for Florida's school accountability system. I look forward to working with whoever is appointed to lead the department."

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, said Bennett's fall "looked like a little payback."

"The timing of this is a little peculiar," Latvala told the Tribune. "If it is connected, I'm more than a little disappointed."

Bennett earlier this month pushed the Florida board that oversees education policy to adopt a "safety net" provision that prevented the grades of more than 500 schools from dropping more than one grade this year.

That provision was adopted by a 4-3 vote amid much debate and criticism that the move would "mask" the true performance of schools. The grades released last week still showed a sharp drop in the number of A-rated schools and a jump in the number of F-rated ones.

Bennett's plan was even opposed by the education foundation set up by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bennett, however, said he communicates with Bush often, that the two are "very close" and that the former governor supported him and told him to stay.

Bennett lost his re-election bid last November in Indiana, and was hired by Scott in December.

His resignation marks the latest in a string of high-profile departures from the Scott administration.

Most recently, David Wilkins stepped down last month as secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families, the state's child-welfare agency, following the deaths of four children in varying levels of state care.

Tribune staff writer Keith Morelli and The Associated Press contributed to this report.