TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/AP) – Following the abrupt resignation of Tony Bennett, the education commissioner amidst a scandal that ultimately questioned his integrity, Florida’s Board of Education has picked a top state education official to fill in.
At the State Board of Education emergency meeting held Friday, in a quick and unanimous vote, the panel named Pam Stewart as the interim commissioner, a position she once held before Bennett was appointed last year.
Stewart currently serves as the chancellor of public schools.
But several board members sounded off about how shocked they were that Bennett chose to step down following allegations that he changed the grade of a charter school run by a major Republican donor during his previous job.
Some board members also expressed fears that Bennett’s departure comes at a difficult time when the state is in the middle of a complicated transition to new tough school standards known as “common core.”
“We have a mess on our hands and we have an opportunity on our hands,” said Kathleen Shanahan, a board member who said the panel needed to move quickly to figure out what to do next.
Bennett left before deciding whether Florida should remain with a national consortium or develop its own set of tests for new common core standards that are scheduled to take effect. Florida’sRepublican legislative leaders want the state to develop its own assessments.
Stewart started her career as a teacher in Hillsborough County in 1975 and has been a principal in Ocala and as well as deputy superintendent in St. Johns County. She served briefly as interim commissioner before Bennett was hired late last year.
Bennett was hired after he failed to win re-election as the Indiana schools chief. While in Indiana he had pushed an A-to-F school grading system modeled after the one already in place in Florida.
Emails published by The Associated Press this week show that Bennett and his Indiana staff scrambled last fall to ensure Republican donor Christel DeHaan’s charter school received an A, despite poor 10th-grade algebra scores that initially earned it a C.
Bennett called that interpretation “malicious and unfounded” and said he had done nothing wrong. But he resigned from his $275,000 job immediately on Thursday saying he did not want to be a “distraction” for Gov. Rick Scott and the board.
Bennett maintained it was his decision to step down and that he was not pressured to do it by anyone.
State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand said during the Friday meeting that he did “everything possible” to convince Bennett to remain on the job.
Barbara Feingold, another board member, said she was “disappointed and very disheartened” by Bennett’s resignation.
“I believe we had hired the best,” Feingold said.
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