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Hernando School Board candidate brings talk of elected superintendent back to life

BROOKSVILLE — It's a question that has lingered since Hernando voters last weighed in on the topic more than two decades ago:

Should the county appoint or elect its school district superintendent?

The issue is getting new life thanks to a School Board candidate who is making a push for an elected superintendent one of the central pillars of his campaign.

There are plenty of good reasons why a superintendent should be elected by voters rather than appointed by the School Board, says Robert Neuhausen, one of four candidates vying for the seat left open by James Yant, who is not seeking re-election.

The big advantage, Neuhausen says: public accountability.

"It's going to cause that person to address issues and answer questions in front of the public," he said.

Neuhausen said he became interested in the possibility of electing a superintendent during former superintendent Wayne Alexander's tenure, which ended about 10 months early and was at times contentious.

Believing Alexander to be arrogant and without a long-term plan for the district, Neuhausen said voters would have done a better job of vetting him properly.

"We're going to find out more about this person and what his or her long-term plan is if they were elected rather than if they were appointed," he said.

While Neuhausen admits that with an elected official the position would become more political, he said "the pluses of properly vetting a candidate would far outweigh someone appointing."

But the same accountability argument can be made for the other side.

"I think there's greater accountability to the community with an appointed superintendent," said superintendent Bryan Blavatt, who plans to retire when his contract ends in June 2013.

His reasoning? An appointed superintendent is in direct contact with the board holding his or her contract and can be removed.

"Florida is the only state now that retains the large number of elected superintendents," he said. "Appointed superintendents represent professionals in the field, and they can be vetted by the field to determine their qualifications and their abilities."

Superintendents in only 23 of Florida's 67 counties are currently appointed.

The Hernando school system has had its current system since 1992, when voters narrowly approved changing the way the county's top education official is hired. The issue has cropped up from time to time since then, but has never made it to the ballot.

The idea has yet to gain much traction, but it has people talking and thinking about the numerous advantages and disadvantages of each method.

To make the change, Neuhausen said a majority of board members would have to approve the measure, then send it to voters for a final decision.

If elected to the School Board, Neuhausen said, he would "apply pressure to the rest of the board members" to support a move to an elected superintendent.

School Board Chairwoman Cynthia Moore, who has been with the district as a teacher under both elected and appointed superintendents, said there are positive aspects about both.

She said elected superintendents are forced to try and please the public, but are less responsive to what board members think.

"At one time, I was totally for the elected," she said, noting that she was no longer certain. "Which one would I rather work under, I'm not sure."

Board Vice Chairman Matthew Foreman is in the appointed superintendent camp.

"Personally, I believe that an elected superintendent is bad for kids," he said. "I believe a superintendent needs to be free from political pressure because the superintendent has to make hard decisions for the benefit of that organization. We already have an elected board whose job it is to oversee that superintendent."

The Hernando Classroom Teachers Association has not decided one way or another, but president Joe Vitalo said the group was "receptive" to a switch to an elected superintendent.

Appointing a superintendent means more external candidates, who are more expensive and require a greater learning curve, he said.

He pointed to Pasco, Sumter and Citrus counties as places where elected superintendents seem to work well.

"They're all doing okay or doing better than us," he said.

Danny Valentine can be reached at dvalentine@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432.

Hernando School Board candidate brings talk of elected superintendent back to life 06/15/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 15, 2012 9:09pm]

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