Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Elected vs. appointed? Florida’s superintendent selection process gets a closer look

Much of Kurt Browning's lengthy tenure in public office has focused on Florida residents' voting rights.

The vote was his business as Pasco County's elections supervisor, and then as Florida secretary of state. Now as Pasco's superintendent of public schools, Browning finds himself still taking up the issue.

This week, he argued against a proposed constitutional amendment to do away with the election of school superintendents. Florida has 41 of them, and Pasco County is the largest in that group. (See the list here.)

"If this amendment goes to the voters and is approved, what happened is local control is taken away from counties' voters," Browning said Tuesday.

He noted that the bulk of the districts that still elect their superintendents are small, rural and less affluent than the 26 that appoint.

"What fits for Miami-Dade doesn't necessarily fit for Liberty," Browning said. "But the way that our system is set up, you will have districts in south Florida, in large part, telling districts in north Florida how to select their superintendent."

Here's the scenario Browning and others envisioned when urging the Constitutional Revision Commission's education committee to kill the proposal.

The 41 counties with elected superintendents had 2,410,374 registered voters, according to state records as of Oct. 31. The 26 with appointed leaders had 10,446,259 registered voters.

Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties alone had 3,474,228 — that's nearly 1.1 million more registered voters than all those 41 counties combined.

If the voters in the 26 figure they already have an appointed superintendent and see no reason to oppose the amendment, they could decide the outcome even if every single registered voter in the 41 counties votes "no."

Chris Doolin, a lobbyist for Florida's small county association, argued that the individual counties should be able to make their own decisions, as the constitution already allows.

He noted that whether they have elected or appointed superintendents, districts generally have the same spread of results in the state testing and school grading system.

As Clay County activist Travis Christensen put it, "I would like the state to leave our local elections alone."

Of course, the arguments favoring the proposal were many.

The vast majority of school districts in the nation appoint superintendents. Appointments allow for the best candidate to emerge regardless of home address. Currently elected superintendents would still be able to apply and be selected.

And, as education commissioner Pam Stewart noted, appointments would help remove election politics from what she said is a profession and should be treated as such.

Browning said he understood, and even agreed with, the rationale for appointing superintendents. He's just not buying.

"What I struggle with is this loss of local control, from the standpoint that you have a position — a very major position — that is going to be selected by three people" rather than an entire community, he said.

Moreover, he continued, there's nothing that has to separate being elected from being a professional.

The committee moved the proposal forward, with just one member opposed. It still must go through a second committee and gain full commission support before it could go to the voters.

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