TALLAHASSEE, FL (Tallahassee.com) -- Before he became Senate President, Don Gaetz was the superintendent of Okaloosa County Schools.
The local business community felt the school district was under-performing. Gaetz said he was tasked with finding a candidate who could oust the incumbent and turn the district around. He wound up drafting himself for the 2000 race.
After the election, he found problems with the district's administration of Advanced Placement courses. He said he wanted to overhaul the program, but he didn't know where to begin. He likes to joke that he was not an educator - he just "played one on TV."
Newsweek Magazine ranked high schools in Leon and Alachua Counties among the best in the nation for pushing more students to earn college credit through rigorous courses. So Gaetz turned to then-Leon County Schools Superintendent Bill Montford.
Montford, he said, helped him understand how to help more students pass courses. For one thing, schools should give tutoring and extra academic attention not just to low-performing students, but also to strong academic performers hoping to reach the next level.
As lawmakers prepare to convene for the 2013 legislative session, they face critical decisions on education policy. School districts around the state are overhauling their curriculum to meet the new Common Core State Standards and preparing to grade every teacher based on student performance. They have less than two years to make sure teachers are trained and technology is in place.
They may not agree on everything. But Gaetz and other legislative leaders say they expect to rely on Montford, the shoulder-slapping, Democratic 65-year-old son of Blountstown, as they decide how to make sure school districts meet the coming deadlines.
"Bill Montford knows more about how to actually implement improvements in curriculum than anybody else in the Senate, including me," Gaetz said.
A father of two and grandfather of five, Montford worked with Gaetz on education policies since before they were lawmakers, and he calls the Senate President a friend. He said Gaetz, a former national debate champion who made millions in the health care industry, is the kind of leader who understands complex organizations and invites constructive disagreement among members.
His relationship with the Republican leadership, his decades of experience in Leon County Schools, and his role as the representative of Florida's 67 school superintendents have placed Montford, whose district spans 11 counties across the Big Bend, at the center of the Senate's deliberations on education.
Leon County Schools Superintendent Jackie Pons said as waves of change sweep through Florida's school districts, Montford is someone who can "settle the waters with Republicans and Democrats."
Bringing people together
As the representative of Florida's capital city, Montford has become the self-appointed social chair of the Florida Senate.
He talks up Apalachicola oysters and passes out jars of Tupelo honey. Each session, he invites Senators and their spouses to purely social outings that happen across party lines.
Montford said he broached the idea during his first legislative session to Mike Bennett, a veteran Republican legislator from Bradenton who was Senate president pro tempore.
"We said, 'You know know what? We've got to find a way to get the Republicans and the Democrats to socialize more,' " Bennett said.
Late in the 2011 legislative session, Montford invited all the members to a downtown condo a block from the Capitol.
Bennett, who is now the supervisor of elections in Manatee County, said Senators split the tab for the refreshments. Lobbyists and reporters were not invited. It was a rare bipartisan gathering, under no pressure to raise money or twist arms over last-minute legislation.
"All of a sudden, you got to know somebody on a personal basis, not just debating across the aisle," Bennett said.
In 2012, Montford invited everyone to a cabin in the Gadsden County woods. This year, in the second week of session, senators will venture east of town on U.S. 90 for barbecue and a skeet-shooting competition.
Montford said he's convinced that personal connections lead to better legislation. When he sees lawmakers laughing with their mouths full, he knows they're coming to understand the values each member brings to the Legislature.
Maria Sachs, a Democrat from Palm Beach County, said the outings helped her connect with colleagues in North Florida.
"When you sit down across the picnic table and you're eating fried chicken with your hands, or corn on the cob that's dripping with butter, you can't help but remember that we're all family together," she said.
"You can feel it," the Senator declares to fellow passengers in the black Cadillac Escalade ferrying him to legislative delegation meetings in Calhoun and Liberty Counties.
It's the feeling that hangs in the air around Blountstown, where he grew up, and Bristol, across the Apalachicola River. Montford speaks of both towns with reverence.
His roots along the Apalachicola River have helped him connect with the vast rural territory of his district. He has taken on the role, in the words of Liberty County commissioner Davis Stoutamire, of "spokesman for the small counties."
While most voters in those counties are registered Democrats, many of them, like Stoutamire, are lifelong Democrats who often vote Republican.
Montford has at times broken with his party on contentious issues. In the waning hours of the 2012 session, he cast a decisive vote to accept the House version of a heavily lobbied overhaul of auto insurance laws that was a priority of Gov. Rick Scott. He was the only Democrat to do so, although another joined in voting for the final bill.
Afterward, he said he was voting with his district, and that pervasive auto-insurance fraud in South Florida was making insurance more expensive in North Florida.
He has been at odds with Republican leaders over prison privatization, which he opposes. But he also is in a position to advocate against the closure of prisons like Jefferson Correctional Institution, which have become a keystone of Florida's rural economy.
During a legislative meeting last week, Montford told Liberty County officials that decades ago, rural communities entered a social contract with the state when they agreed to accept state prisons in exchange for work crews and new sources of jobs.
Stoutamire said small counties cannot afford to lose their prisons, whose work crews have helped maintain government buildings and remodel the courthouse.
"It's a tremendous asset to Liberty County to have this prison system here, and not only that, they bring in about a $20 million payroll," he said.
As superintendent in 1996, Montford was an early supporter of the charter-school movement and the founding of Steele-Collins Charter Middle School, which was one of the first in the state. He said he still supports the concept of charter schools.
But he said he is worried by the problems that have surfaced around the state, where schools have failed and shut down. At one failed institution in Orlando, administrators took six-figure payouts.
Montford is the co-sponsor of legislation introduced by Sen. David Simmons, a Republican from Central Florida, aimed at limiting excessive payments to charter school administrators and creating safeguards for school districts.
He has also introduced a bill of his own that would, among other things, require the non-profit boards that run charter schools to demonstrate their independence from for-profit management companies.
Last legislative session, he opposed "parent trigger" legislation, which would allow parents to vote on whether to convert failing public schools to charters.
The bill failed last year on a 20-20 tie vote, opposed by all 12 Democrats and 8 Republicans. Many of the Republicans who opposed the bill have left the Senate.
While he concedes that the bill may be impossible to stop if it reaches the floor, he said as vice chairman of the committees that oversee both education funding and education policy, he may be in a position to make the bill more palatable to groups that opposed it last year.
His background in education has also helped foster a network of supporters, many of them graduates of Lincoln and Godby High Schools, where Montford was an administrator for 26 years.
He can scarcely walk into a room without meeting a former student. That means someone like Mark Friedman, a Godby graduate and Apalachicola accountant, can help him round up campaign signs during a swing through Franklin County.
When he's in his downtown office, there's always a student close by.
In 2005, around Christmas time, Randy Martin was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer in a near-fatal crash that severed the main artery to his heart.
In the emergency room at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, he could think of two people to call: his best friend and his former high school principal. After nine hours of surgery, he came out of the operating room and he saw the Leon County Superintendent of Schools waiting with his family.
Now, Martin works at Nic's Toggery, a boutique a block from the Capitol where lawmakers and lobbyists buy their session attire. His former principal, now the CEO of the state's superintendents association, works next door.
In his position, he often gets to see the man behind the suit. In Montford, he said, he saw a politician who didn't have to go out of his way to win votes. "He had a following, just based on who he was."
By Travis Pillow, Florida Capital Bureau