Profile: Don Gaetz
After shaking up education in Okaloosa, a multimillionaire entrepreneur turns to Tallahassee.
Under Don Gaetz's leadership, the Okaloosa School District became the top-rated in the state. Gaetz was elected to the state Senate last fall, where he will lead the PreK-12 Education Committee.
[Photo: Ray Stanyard]
Don Gaetz is something of a legend even before he takes charge of the Senate PreK-12 Education Committee or casts his first vote as a state senator.
After making millions as co-founder of a national hospice chain, Gaetz arrived in his wife's home county of Okaloosa 16 years ago, took on what he calls "a bloated central bureaucracy" in the local schools and in six years as superintendent made Okaloosa the highest-rated school district in the state.
Now he has come to Tallahassee. Elected to the Florida Senate last fall without opposition, Gaetz, 59, was named the Senate's point man on pre-college education. He is also being promoted as a potential Senate president in 2010, a decision that could be made as early as the 2007 legislative session, which begins March 6. House Speaker-to-be Ray Sansom, who worked for him in the Okaloosa school administration, is a powerful ally at the other end of the Capitol.
Gaetz's frustration over school administration began when he was the chairman of the School Advisory Council at Bluewater Elementary School in 1992. "Teachers in the classroom had virtually nothing to say about the operation of their schools, even though they were the ones being held responsible for results," Gaetz says. He hired the Rand Corp. out of his own pocket to find the best model combining decentralized decision-making and school performance.
When Okaloosa administrators resisted, Gaetz ran successfully for the school board in 1994. In 2000, he ran for superintendent and got 77% of the vote.
Okaloosa was not the state's toughest educational challenge. It lacked the complex urban problems of a Miami-Dade or the poor tax base and F-level educational performance of a Gadsden County (where new Superintendent Reginald C. James began a turnaround in 2005). The military presence in Okaloosa usually means better parental discipline, and development along the Gulf Coast boosts tax revenue. Moreover, state standards establish minimums, not excellence.
Still, Okaloosa went from lots of C schools and a smattering of A's and B's to having 93% of its schools A-rated. Teacher salaries, up almost 10% this year, are among the highest in the state.
Gaetz combines Republican conservatism with North Dakota Lutheran pragmatism. He listens and prepares carefully. Anticipating a run for superintendent, he commuted to Troy State University in Alabama and earned a master's in public administration. He sought advice. He read voraciously.
And he acted decisively. His success was not just in "programs." It was determined, skillful management.
Gaetz eliminated a third of the positions in the central school office, replaced most of the principals and turned budgets and decision-making over to schools.
He stopped social promotion, calling it "lying." Parents were angry when their kids were held back. But retained students got new teachers and individual learning plans that came with grants of $2,000 for private tutoring, books and even newspaper subscriptions.
A new program of career education let students earn high school diplomas, college credit and industry certifications at the same time. A program to make school services available to home-schooled children included their own orchestra. Gaetz and Sansom put on 24-hour telethons to recruit volunteer mentors.
Gaetz built $85 million in classrooms to replace decades-old trailers. The outsourced building project came in a year early and $8 million under budget, he says. "We didn't go into privatizing with a religious fervor. We thought it would be a better business practice, and we rigorously examined it every step of the way to be sure that it was."
Last spring, with the county lagging on advanced-placement tests, Gaetz asked seven AP teachers to attack the problem. One suggestion was for AP teachers to be more accessible and get more training. The teachers union balked at some requirements, but a meeting with Gaetz produced changes that won the union's support. Afterward, union executive director Greg Butler told the Northwest Florida Daily News, "The district is always willing to work with us."