COMPILED FROM STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
Two of the state’s top managers of Florida’s agencies that are mired in controversy – the Department of Education and the Division of Elections – quit their jobs to go back to their respective families, according to their resignation letters.
Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson resigned late Tuesday amid a months-long controversy over the state’s testing regimen and errors on school grades that forced the department to change the marks for dozens of schools.
Robinson’s resignation is effective Aug. 31, when he would have been on the job a little more than a year.
Dr. Gisela Salas, director of the Division of Elections, resigned effective Aug. 1 – just before Florida’s primary elections got under way.
The Division of Elections includes three bureaus: Voting Systems Certification, Election Records and Voter Registration Services. The division is responsible for certifying all voting systems that are used to conduct elections in Florida’s 67 counties. The division also maintains the statewide Florida Voter Registration System, which is the official state voter registration list.
Salas and state elections officials have been in the middle of a fight, led by Gov. Rick Scott, to purge what Scott called “non-citizens” from the voting rolls. County elections officials and voting rights advocates resisted Scott’s efforts, with some calling it “voter suppression.” The Division of Elections eventually released a list of 180,000 names at the center of a controversy.
The fight over the rolls is just one in a series of skirmishes that have broken out around voting in Florida a few months before the November presidential election. With 29 electoral votes, Florida is expected to be the largest swing state and could decide whether President Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wins the presidency.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a federal lawsuit against the state, alleging that the voter purge violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. DOJ claims that Florida’s systematic purging of voters within the required 90-day “quiet period’’ before an election for federal office established by the law is illegal. DOJ is asking a federal court judge to stop the voter purge.
‘Service cut short’
In letters to Scott and State Board of Education Chairwoman Kathleen Shanahan, Robinson said he was proud of his work with the department. Robinson was secretary of education in Virginia before taking over the Florida job in August 2011.
“Living far away from my family has proven to be the one challenge all this progress could not overcome,” Robinson wrote after listing his accomplishments. “So it is with sincere appreciation and deep regret my time of service to Florida’s students, parents, teachers, superintendents, college and university presidents, business and community organizations is cut short.”
Scott, who backed Robinson after reportedly pushing out former Education Commissioner Eric Smith, issued a brief statement praising Robinson.
Took a hit
Robinson’s tenure had been dogged in recent months by the public relations pounding the department took after Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores collapsed, followed a few months later by the school grades mix-up.
The Florida Board of Education was forced to lower passing grades for the statewide writing tests in May after the passing rate plunged from 81 percent to 27 percent for fourth graders and showed similar drops in eighth and 10th grades.
Then, in July, the department had to reissue grades for 213 elementary and middle schools and nine school districts as part of a “continuous review process.”
That came after the number of schools receiving an “A” had plummeted from 1,481 in 2011 to 1,124 this year.
The new grades showed 1,240 schools getting the highest mark – a jump of 5 percentage points from the first cut of the numbers.
One of the groups that is among the most vocal in criticizing the state’s high-stakes testing system said problems with FCAT scores made Robinson’s tenure a failure.
“Commissioner Robinson claimed many victories in his letter of resignation, none of which can be said to improve the educational experience of Florida’s 2.5 million students,” the group Fund Education Now said.
“His so-called accomplishments were tied to Florida’s accountability system which is interesting because under Commissioner Robinson, this system has been completely discredited.”
Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida contributed to this report.