TALLAHASSEE - As expected, state education official Pam Stewart was named interim Education commissioner at a Friday emergency meeting of the Florida Board of Education. The meeting, held as a conference call, lasted about 10 minutes. Stewart's name and photo were then listed as "commissioner" on the front page of the Education Department's website shortly after the unanimous vote. Stewart, who began teaching in Hillsborough County, had been chancellor of public schools and was interim commissioner last year before the board appointed her immediate predecessor, Tony Bennett. Bennett stepped down Thursday amid a furor over emails suggesting he bumped up the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor while he was Indiana's elected schools chief. He has denied any impropriety and claims the leaking of the emails was politically motivated.
Bennett, who was hired in December, was the third education commissioner to leave office since Gov. Rick Scott assumed office in January 2011. Florida now has to move forward without a permanent education chief as it attempts to segue from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test to new national learning standards, called Common Core, and their required tests. Florida's grading system, ushered in with Gov. Jeb Bush's A-plus Plan for Education in 1999, also is being questioned by some lawmakers, parent groups and teachers unions. Schools are ranked A-F on a variety of factors, including student performance, and those letter grades affect anything from school funding to a surrounding neighborhood's real estate values. During the meeting, board member Kathleen Shanahan, of Tampa, said September, the date of the next meeting, was too long to wait to prepare for the next legislative session. Committees will start meeting this fall and the session starts March 4. "We have a mess on our hands and an opportunity on our hands," said Shanahan, who once served as Bush's chief of staff. She suggested a "select committee" to include state lawmakers, schools superintendents and principals, governor's staff and others, to address one question: "What do we need to do . so we can pass any legislation that we need to pass to make sure there's still integrity in our accountability system?" "We have to be more action-oriented," she added. "This is the board's responsibility. . We need to get engaged." Board chairman Gary Chartrand, of Ponte Vedra Beach, agreed, and said he'd consult with Stewart about the idea. Last month, Bennett recommended and the board approved a "safety net" provision that stopped the grades of the state's schools from dropping more than one grade this year. The 4-3 vote came after criticism that the policy move would cause more confusion about how well schools really were doing. Grades for elementary, middle and combination schools - those not graded as high schools - were released last month; the number of Hillsborough County "A" schools dropped, and its report card saw a handful of "F" schools. Other board members praised Bennett and rued his resignation. "Having said that, we will persevere," said board member Barbara S. Feingold, of Delray Beach. "We will continue to maintain our high standards. I agree we need to be active and proactive, and not reactive." [email protected] (850) 765-0807 Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO