Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Schools Chief Makes Safety No. 1 Priority

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Schools Chief Makes Safety No. 1 Priority

Article excerpt

TALLAHASSEE -- With a nickname like "Chain Gang Charlie," it's not surprising that new state Education Commissioner Charlie Crist plans to make school safety a top priority during his two-year term, which begins today.

Crist, a former state senator from St. Petersburg, replaces Tom Gallagher, who is moving across the hall of the Capitol to become insurance commissioner.

Crist is an ardent supporter of Gov. Jeb Bush's "A+" plan and the ongoing overhaul of the state education system, but the Republican has vowed to speak up when he disagrees with the governor and other lawmakers.

He wants to curb wasteful spending with state-mandated school system audits, which he says could save the state $600 million. He also wants to increase teacher salaries and offer more bonuses to high-performing educators.

Though Crist will face all of those issues during his term, safety remains the centerpiece of his plans.

"The No. 1 issue I heard around the state was safety," Crist said. "Parents want to be able to send their child off to school in the morning knowing they will truly be safe. We force students to go there, so we better make sure they're safe as best we can."

With that in mind, Crist wants to create programs that will assess how well schools protect children. Parents will be allowed to move their children elsewhere if a school repeatedly fails the safety assessments. Crist also wants to require school districts to create toll-free safety hot lines for anonymous reporting of dangerous activity.

During his six years in the Senate, Crist gained a reputation for being tough on crime. He helped pass legislation that required criminals serve 85 percent of their sentences and also led the charge to bring back chain gangs as punishment -- hence the nickname, courtesy of an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times.

"I don't mind," Crist said during a recent interview at the Capitol. "But it's got to be put in perspective. When that came about in 1995, Florida was No. 1 in violent crime in this country."

Last year, Crist was given an updated moniker by President-elect Bush, who called Crist "Chalkboard Charlie" at a campaign rally in Tampa. The new name hasn't caught on, perhaps because Crist has little experience in education.

Despite that, the attorney is confident he'll do just fine in his new role.

"I didn't run for superintendent," he said. "I didn't run to be principal of Florida. I ran to be a policy-driven office holder and that's how I view this role. I will support policy for creating things that enhance the educational opportunities for our young people."

Some critics, including his Democratic opponent on the November ballot, George Sheldon, have questioned if Crist will simply provide Jeb Bush and Republican legislators with rubber-stamp leadership on education issues. …

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