Thursday, December 14, 2017
Florida News

Should Florida's school superintendents be elected or appointed?

When it comes to selecting school district superintendents, Florida stands apart from most of the nation by allowing voters to choose.

Forty-four of the state's 67 districts have elected superintendents, with most of the large, urban systems opting for a school board-appointed leader instead. To put that in context, only Alabama and Mississippi also have elected superintendents, and Mississippi recently passed a law ending that practice.

The issue often becomes passionate and political, with local Florida electorates frequently choosing to stick with their elected leaders when things are running smoothly, but advocating for change when their districts face troubles. Martin County voters, who have defeated change four times in 30 years, will again consider the question in 2018.

Before that referendum takes place, though, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission will debate whether to put a permanent end to the elected superintendent position.

Commissioner Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member, has proposed amending the constitution so all superintendents are appointed by their boards, effective November 2020. 

"Our communities deserve school leaders that are focuses on excellence and not politics," Donalds said. "The nature of elected superintendents ensures the majority of applicants have no experience."

Not only that, she said, the elected model limits potential superintendents to county residents. Someone with vast experience could live five minutes outside the district and not be eligible without moving.

Donalds further observed that the elected superintendent has his or her own political base, separate from the board that is charged with setting policy for the district. She pointed to Jefferson County, recently taken over by a charter school operator because of persistently low test performance, and noted how its board members told lawmakers their elected superintendent regularly ignored their votes.

"We've seen that happen in various districts," Donalds said.

Of course, the opposite situation can occur. Power hungry school board members easily can dominate an appointed superintendent with threats of dismissal, for instance.

"You could find pluses and minuses on both sides," Donalds said. "You have to balance the two."

The Constitution Revision Commission Education Committee plans to discuss education governance issues when it meets at 1 p.m. Tuesday in Tallahassee.

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