TALLAHASSEE (AP) — The State Board of Education on Thursday tapped Florida’s current public schools chancellor to serve as the state’s interim education commissioner and began searching for a permanent replacement.
During an emergency meeting, the panel unanimously appointed Pam Stewart to take over on Aug. 31, when Gerard Robinson’s resignation takes effect.
Robinson on Tuesday announced he was leaving the $275,000 job after just 13 months. He cited the challenge of living far apart from his family in Virginia, where he had been education secretary before taking the Florida job.
His brief tenure has been marked by turmoil over tougher standards that have dropped scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and lowered school grades. He has denied, though, that Gov. Rick Scott, the board or its chairwoman, Kathleen Shanahan, forced him out.
“I’m sorry to see him go, but I totally understand the circumstances in terms of being an active and involved daily parent in his children’s lives and with his wife back in Virginia,” Shanahan said.
Robinson’s wife is a tenured law professor at the University of Richmond, but she was unable to land a similar job in Tallahassee. The Robinsons have two young daughters.
His predecessor, Eric Smith, resigned under pressure from Scott shortly after the Republican governor took office in January 2011. While the governor has no formal role in the hiring of education commissioners he has the power to appoint board members.
Shanahan, a Tampa businesswoman, served as Jeb Bush’s chief of staff when he was governor.
Bush, who launched the state’s high-stakes testing and school accountability programs, continues to exert influence on Florida’s education system through his ties with leaders such as Shanahan and his Foundation for Florida’s Future, which lobbies to continue his policies.
The former governor issued a statement through the foundation thanking Robinson for his service to Florida’s students and teachers and wishing him and his family well.
The board also voted to seek bids from consulting firms to aid in the search for a permanent successor after Shanahan argued against automatically going back to the firm that handled Robinson’s appointment. She said the world has changed in a year although she had nothing against Ray and Associates.
Board member John Padget, a former school superintendent from Key West, had suggested using Ray again to speed up the process. The board’s contract with Ray also has a clause saying the firm would handle the search for a replacement without charge if the candidate hired leaves within two years.
The selection process was delayed last year when the board reopened the application process after only 19 candidates applied. State officials then courted Robinson and he was among nine new candidates who submitted applications during the extension.
Stewart currently oversees programs for kindergarten through 12th grade. As interim commissioner she will head the Department of Education, which also includes community and state colleges, blind services, vocational rehabilitation and adult education.
A former teacher, principal, guidance counselor and deputy St. Johns County school superintendent, Stewart was traveling and did not participate in the board meeting. Shanahan, though, said she had spoken to Stewart about taking the interim position.
“She’s ready to go,” Shanahan said. “Right now she is not interested in the job on a permanent basis.”
Smith’s ouster drew sharp opposition from then-board chairman T. Willard Fair, a Bush ally, who resigned in protest. Smith is now a fellow in education policy with the George W. Bush Institute.
Smith had been a school superintendent Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland and chairman of The College Board, which administers the SAT college entrance test, before he was hired as Florida’s education commissioner in 2007. The Florida Senate passed a resolution praising his visionary leadership after he was forced out.