Florida’s first chancellor for K-12 education may have followed a less-than-traditional path to his new job, but in many ways he’s the perfect fit.
Jim Warford brings impressive but limited experience as a district superintendent to Florida’s No. 2 job overseeing precollegiate schools and the state education department.
He also brings the passion of an admired classroom teacher, the skills he learned running a family business, and the creativity he nurtured in managing a nature park and writing country songs for artists such as Kenny Rogers.
He promises to push steadfastly the education policies of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and Commissioner of Education Jim Horne, who hired him April 23. They insist on strict school accountability and an expansion of state vouchers that give students public money for private school tuition.
“One of the reasons I accepted this challenge is I believe it’s very important that we stay this course,” said the 54-year-old Mr. Warford, who begins his new job June 1. He will make $140,000 a year. “I believe the future of this state depends on it.”
A Prime Mover
Mr. Warford drew the attention of state leaders, in part, because of soaring test scores in Marion County, the 40,000-student system where voters elected him superintendent in late 2000.
When he arrived, the Ocala-based district in central Florida had three schools with F’s on their state report cards, another eight had D’s, and only one had earned an A.
After 21/2 years under his leadership, Mr. Warford’s district now boasts of nine A schools and 13 with B’s. Not a single school has an F.
The incoming chancellor said he has worked hard to focus Marion County educators on teaching every child to read effectively by 3rd grade, and to track students’ weekly progress in that subject and math by using local tests that align with state academic standards and exams.
“I had too many teachers and principals come to me when I first started and say, ‘I’m doing the best I can, but it’s just these kids,’” Mr. Warford said. “Those are all excuses, and the fact is we know enough to teach all children whose education is of interest to us. We simply must find the way.”
Even people who disagree with Mr. Warford’s views on education policy speak highly of his drive and his results so far in Marion County.
Pasco County Superintendent John Long, a former Democratic state legislator who has been critical of Gov. Bush’s education policies, said Mr. Warford has earned respect by improving the Marion County schools. Mr. Long said the new chancellor has consulted other superintendents often, and likely will do the same in Tallahassee, the state capital.
“The governor’s got a friend, but so do we,” said Mr. Long, whose 54,000-student district sits about 80 miles from Mr. Warford’s.
Former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, a Republican who recently left office to become the president of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, said Mr. Warford’s “nontraditional” path to the chancellorship and his approach to his work would help schools across the state.
“These are very nontraditional times,” said Mr. Brogan, a former state education commissioner. “He is a hard charger, high-energy, very enthusiastic. That’s exactly what our state needs.”
For his part, Mr. Warford said he hopes to strengthen relationships between the state and education policy groups such as the superintendents’ association. He will be a spokesman for and liaison with education groups, and will manage the K-12 division of the Florida education department.
He also intends to enforce Florida’s new rules that prohibit promotion for 3rd graders and graduation for high school seniors who have not passed parts of the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test.
“Our legislature and political leaders are going to catch a lot of heat. I just hope and pray they are brave enough to withstand it,” Mr. Warford said.
He also backs Gov. Bush’s signature education policy that provides state-financed vouchers that students can use for private and religious schools if they attend public schools that repeatedly fail on state report cards.
“I think it’s a very useful tool in prompting those of us in public education to do what we need to do,” Mr. Warford said. “I believe competition raises all boats.”
Mr. Warford is engaging and demanding in personality and management style. He is a married father of three, and his wife is a technology coordinator and instructor in the Marion County schools.
Before his election, as a Republican, to the district superintendency, he taught applied technology for 14 years at Ocala’s Vanguard High School. He built a top-notch TV-production class and won honors as the county’s teacher of the year in 1997.
That’s when be began to write a regular newspaper column for the Ocala Star-Banner and studied how other states and districts were improving schools. He discovered the Brazosport, Texas, school district’s approach of constant student assessment and high expectations, and later adopted it. (“Put to the Test,” Oct. 4, 2000.)
While teaching, Mr. Warford also helped run an electrical-supply business started by his wife’s family, managed and trained the staff at the Silver Springs nature park near Ocala, wrote songs in Nashville, and worked for a year at Yellowstone National Park, where he was married.
A rural Kentucky native, Mr. Warford says he was inspired by teachers who nurtured his academic and artistic aspirations, such as Mary Kay Jones, with whom he stays in touch. His mother dropped out of school in the 8th grade.
He learned to play bluegrass and other music early on, and has passed that tradition to his own children. Mr. Warford idolizes the banjo master Bela Fleck, and wants his children and students to love life and their work as much as he does.
He is not your regular state education leader, even for Florida.
“They’re going to have to get used to a banjo-playing chancellor,” he said.