Tallahassee, FL - In naming Gerard Robinson as Florida’s next education commissioner, the state Board of Education this week turned to someone with a compelling background --- and an affinity for school-choice programs.
The Board of Education unanimously voted Tuesday to appoint Robinson, who serves as secretary of education in Virginia. He will replace Eric Smith, who was pushed out of the commissioner’s job by Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott supported Robinson’s hiring in behind-the-scenes discussions with board members. Robinson, who backs initiatives such as vouchers and charter schools, was selected over four other finalists.
The governor’s office, meanwhile, went through a shake-up of its own this week. Scott’s chief of staff, Mike Prendergast, and another top strategist, Mary Anne Carter, announced they would leave their posts.
Scott turned Friday to an old Tallahassee hand, Steve MacNamara, to take over as chief of staff. MacNamara most recently has served as chief of staff to Senate President Mike Haridopolos and also worked as chief of staff to former House Speaker John Thrasher.
Robinson will face a new bureaucratic world when he takes over as education commissioner. In Virginia, he advises the governor on education policy and oversees a staff of four; in Florida, he will oversee nearly 1,000 employees.
But Robinson has overcome challenges in the past. He was the first person in his family to go to college --- and almost didn’t even go --- before eventually earning a master’s degree at Harvard.
"Mr. Robinson's personal story is pretty compelling and it's a good example for many other students or children that are in our education system that can see a role model in Mr. Robinson," said State Board of Education Vice Chair Roberto Martinez. "I wasn't exactly a great student myself when I was growing up."
Robinson’s support for school choice aligns him with Scott and Republican legislative leaders, who again this year approved expansions of such programs. During an interview with the board Monday, Robinson stressed his interest in improving Florida’s graduation rates and also acknowledged that choice programs are not a “silver bullet.’’
Along with the change at the top of the K-12 system, Florida’s higher-education system also drew attention this week because of 15 percent tuition increases at state universities.
The Board of Governors approved hitting undergraduate students with 15 percent increases for the third year in a row. University presidents argued for the increases, saying they are needed to offset cuts in state funding and to help prevent faculty layoffs, increased class sizes and shuttered programs.
University of Florida President Bernie Machen expressed frustration that he has not been allowed to increase tuition beyond 15 percent.
"This is not complicated, if you want us to move up in national rankings, we have to be able to hire more world-class faculty and it takes dollars," Machen said. "I've said it to the Legislature and I've said it to you and it's not going anywhere."
When Scott appointed Prendergast as chief of staff and Carter as a top aide, he lived up to his reputation for being a Tallahassee outsider. After all, Prendergast is a retired Army colonel, and Carter is a political operative who lives in Tennessee.
But with his poll numbers showing voter dissatisfaction, Scott turned to Capitol veteran MacNamara to run many of the day-to-day affairs of the administration.
"I think something needed to be done," said Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida. "Gov. Scott has had difficulty with his message."
But a Scott attempt to take a victory lap on one of his priorities --- property tax cuts --- drew flak this week.
Scott went to the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach to hold a ceremonial bill signing for a measure that will trim $210.5 million off property-tax bills next year. The bill places new limits on property taxes that go to water-management districts.
“This property tax cut allows families and businesses to use more of their hard-earned money in the way they see best, rather than having to send it to a government agency,” Scott said.
But Democrats criticized Scott’s visit as insensitive to water-management district employees who will lose jobs because of funding cuts.
“We can agree to disagree on the merits of the bill the governor signed,’’ said Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “But to come to Palm Beach County and rub salt in the wounds of people who will soon go home to their families unemployed is insulting and unnecessarily cruel.’’
After fighting pension changes during the legislative session, labor unions turned to another arena this week: the courts.
The Florida Education Association, backed by other unions, filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new law that will require government employees to contribute 3 percent of their paychecks to the state pension system.
Scott has made a priority of employee pension contributions, saying the move is “common sense” and is about fairness to people who don’t work for the government. But the lawsuit contends that imposing contributions violates the contractual rights of people who are already in the pension system.
"It is essentially an income tax levied only on the workers belonging to the Florida Retirement System,'' FEA President Andy Ford said.
While a decision in the pension case is likely months away, a Miami federal judge this week ruled that Florida’s process for sentencing convicted murderers to death is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez, ruling in a 1991 murder-for-hire case in Vero Beach, said Florida’s system violates a U.S. Supreme Court decision. That is because jurors in Florida do not have to disclose why they decided to recommend capital punishment.
Attorney General Pam Bondi plans to ask for the case to be heard again.
"The Attorney General's Office believes that the ruling is contrary to relevant decisions by the Florida Supreme Court, Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court as it applies to the imposition of the death penalty in this particular case," spokesman Jennifer Krell Davis said. "There is no immediate impact on death sentencing in Florida as a result of this ruling as the appeals process is not complete."
MAPPING THE FUTURE:
Lawmakers held hearings this week that kicked off months of wrangling about how to draw the state’s new political districts.
Part of a Tallahassee hearing focused on complaints that legislative leaders decided to hold public meetings before releasing proposed maps. Citizens and activists said that put them at a disadvantage in trying to figure out what lawmakers might do in drawing new legislative and congressional districts.
But Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who is the House’s top point man on redistricting, tried to ease the concerns.
"There's going to be plenty of time for politicians to give their opinions, plenty of time for politicians to draw maps," Weatherford said. "Now is the time for the people to have their say. ... We want the citizens of Florida to be dictating what these maps look like, not politicians."
Some speakers, however, were more concerned that oddly shaped districts have put too much distance between them and lawmakers. As an example, a congressional district held by Jacksonville Republican Ander Crenshaw juts across North Florida to Leon County.
"Before I die, let me vote in Leon County," pleaded Linda Williams, who lives in that congressional district. "Because I live here; I pay taxes here."
The state Department of Community Affairs, meanwhile, had a different kind of maps in mind when it started holding growth-management hearings across the state.
New laws will eliminate DCA as a stand-alone agency and reduce the state’s oversight of development decisions. During a meeting in Polk City, DCA officials said the state will stay active in large-scale development decisions but will be more selective about getting involved in local growth issues.
"Perhaps it's time to start thinking about easing up on local governments a bit and thinking about a mid-course correction on what the state will advance," DCA Secretary Billy Buzzett said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Florida Board of Education named Gerard Robinson as the state’s new education commissioner, replacing Eric Smith.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “"He knows the House, he knows the Senate, he knows just about anybody who's been in government for the last 25 years," said Thrasher, when asked about MacNamara, who was named later in the week as Scott’s chief of staff.