Bennett: New Blind Services Director a Priority

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Tallahassee, FL - "It's near the top of my priority list."

Those words are from Florida's new Education Commissioner Tony Bennett about hiring a new Blind Services director.

In his first week on the job, Bennett says he met with interim Blind Services Director Aleisa McKinlay.

McKinlay is also the Vocational Rehabilitation Services Director.

Both divisions are part of the Department of Education.

Bennett says he's had a short discussion with McKinlay.

"We're very excited about the work we believe she can do," said Bennett. "But again, we are sensitive to the fact we want to make sure we have all the components in place to make sure all the divisions of the department run smoothly," he said.

McKinlay was named interim director last month.

She took over for Joyce Hildreth.

Hildreth resigned in the wake of a services contract scandal.

One other DOE employee resigned and two others were fired.

Tallahassee, FL - He has the same name as a famous entertainer.

But the head of Florida's teachers union isn't exactly singing the praises of new education commissioner Tony Bennett.

Bennett is wrapping up his first week as Florida's new education commissioner.

His decisions will have a major impact on the state's roughly 4000 public schools.

"I think Florida has been a national leader in providing the framework for student center reforms," said Bennett.

Bennett comes to Florida after serving in a similar role in Indiana.

However, unlike his new job, Hoosiers elected Bennett to his job there.

But in November after one term, he lost his re-election bid.

"We'd become the face and voice of an agenda that our opponents painted as anti public school and anti teacher when in fact that wasn't the case," he said.

"We had hoped we would've had a commissioner that was familiar with with Florida, who understands the needs of Florida's school districts and the complexity of the state," said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford.

Bennett isn't getting much of a honeymoon from Ford.

Before Bennett's first day on the job, the teachers union leader criticized Bennett for his support of what he called testing mania, charter schools expansion and vouchers.

Bennett says he's a strong supporter of school choice.

"It's a social justice issue," he said.

Bennett says he had similar negative feedback from Indiana's teachers union.

He says leaders there declined his invitation to work with him.

"I hope Mr. Ford takes much better advantage of our invitation," said Bennett. "And it is an open invitation to have great dialogue," he said.

"We've had one very brief conversation in a hallway, so hopefully, we're going to have many more," said Ford.

As Florida's new education commissioner, Tony Bennett oversees a more than $20-billion dollar budget, nearly a third of the entire state budget.

However, the current half completed budget does not include teachers pay raises.

It's an issue he says he and Governor Rick Scott will look at for the next budget.

In particular, Bennett supports merit pay raises.

"We really should reward our best and brightest commensurate with their ability to move student performance," he said.

"Performance pay alone isn't going to solve our problems here. Florida's teachers for instance are $10-thousand below the national average," said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford.

And Ford says most of his union's 140-thousand plus members haven't had a raise in five years.

Additionally, he points out due to the recent expiration of the social security payroll tax break and the new pension contributions teachers and other state workers must pay, Ford says those workers have taken a five percent hit in their take home pay.

"We're hoping the legislature will see that it's now time to have teachers and all school employees and all public employees have a pay raise," said Ford.

"I believe as we move forward, our ability to connect fiscal policy and education policy will afford us an opportunity to really compensate our best teachers," said Bennett.

But Ford says there's another problem with merit pay.

He says only a third of teachers teach courses covered by the state's standardized testing or FCAT.

But they're all evaluated on those results.

"We need to make some adjustments, some serious adjustments," said Ford.

"I believe that assessment is part of instruction, it's not aside from instruction," said Bennett.

Ford says the new commissioner should look at the entire accountability system in place.

It includes the school grading system, teacher evaluations and all the testing.

Bennett says he likes the framework already in place.

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