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Elected or appointed? It may not matter

Pasco voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to change the way the superintendent of Pasco schools is selected. It is an important decision.

The superintendent oversees 4,345 employees, the county's largest pool of workers. And the superintendent's philosophy and style directly affect what happens in Pasco classrooms where 38,000 youngsters take their lessons.

Pasco's superintendent has always been elected. Voters will decide whether that practice should continue or whether the School Board should appoint the superintendent.

Many voters will ask, "Which system is best?"

The Times examined the research and talked to educators, political scientists and parties on both sides of the debate. The answer: While there are strongly held opinions, there is no evidence that clearly establishes the superiority of either an elected or appointed school superintendent.

A federally sponsored report, conducted by researchers at the Southeastern Educational Improvement Laboratory in North Carolina, looked at the issue in six southern states, spending the most pages on Florida. It found that "empirical evidence for both cases is inconclusive."

The matter, according to a federal report, comes down to a question of "democratization versus professionalism." The benefits of local control versus the benefits of expert management.

There are, in short, good arguments on each side. Just ask Pasco's current school superintendent, Tom Weightman.

Make it appointed

Two years ago, on the day after he won re-election by defeating a Pasco school principal, Weightman brought up the issue in an interview with the Times. Although the highly respected Weightman had won five elections, he was a longtime supporter of having the School Board pick the next superintendent.

He had supported the move back in 1986, when a referendum was narrowly defeated. Two previous times, Pasco voters had been asked the same question and decided to keep the choice to themselves.

Weightman said that the divisive 1992 election convinced him of the need for an appointed superintendent. His plans to retire at the end of his term in 1996 left him worried about what would happen then.

In the spring of 1993, board member Marge Whaley brought up the issue and board members voted unanimously to let the voters decide again.

"Without throwing stones at anybody, yes, (the last election) made me think about it a lot more," Weightman said a few days before that board vote. "The past is the past, and I don't want to rehash things, but yes, I am concerned" about what will happen if the post remains elected.

He and the board discussed at length a key argument of those who think the job should be appointed: You don't need much in the way of qualifications to run for the job. A candidate need only be an 18-year-old American citizen. You don't need a high school diploma, let alone college degrees or teaching experience. With an appointed position, by contrast, the board can set the standards as high as it wishes.

The board also considered that nationally, nearly 98 percent of district school superintendents are appointed. In Florida, only 22 of the state's 67 county districts have appointed superintendents. But those are the more populous counties, and more children attend school in those counties than in those with elected superintendents.

With the referendum in place, the League of Women Voters geared up to support the switch to an appointed position and sent members out, Whaley included, to speak on the issue.

As chairman of the League's Pro-Appointed School Superintendent (PASS) committee, Betty Pool strongly believes that politics ought to be removed from the selection process.

"Many have said they don't like the political pressures put on school personnel (to campaign) and they don't like the idea that there could be a real good politician get it who might not be qualified," she said.

Pool and other proponents believe voters ought to go about finding a superintendent the same way big companies choose a chief executive officer. Think of a school system as a big company bureaucracy, they say, and you will see why electing the superintendent is inadvisable.

"A big company," she said, "would never dream of electing the CEO."

The federal report, citing research from a 1982 Florida study, says "across the United States, a majority of educators believe .

.

. (there should be) an elected board of education empowered to appoint the district superintendent of schools."

The federal report also said teachers unions have generally remained neutral. That holds true in Pasco, where the union has not taken a stand on the issue.

Proponents of appointing the superintendent also point to the complex and widespread classroom reforms produced by the state's Blueprint 2000 education reform law. They argue that a professional educator better understands the basis and need for the reforms.

Of course, nothing is more central to Blueprint 2000 than local control. Why should voters consider surrendering their right to directly choose the most important job in the school system?

"I think most importantly the School Board members are elected by the people, and they're the ones who do the appointing of the superintendent," said board member Pam Coulter.

Florida school districts typically attract a lot of applicants for superintendent's jobs, said Mike Nunnery, an emeritus professor at the University of Florida who has been involved in national searches for such applicants.

Proponents of appointment argue that, when things go wrong with a superintendent, a school board can react quicker than the electorate. An elected official will serve out his term, typically four years. A school board can fire an appointed superintendent at any time.

Hernando School Board member Nancy Gordon said that the change in that county to an appointed superintendent has made a tremendous difference.

"You do get more responsiveness with one who's appointed because they serve at the pleasure of the board," Gordon said. "What I found is it's been much easier for the entire board to work with the appointed superintendent."

She said politics have been mostly removed from board work and further argued that "it's not logical" for voters to pick the school chief when voters don't pick city and county managers.

Pool put it this way on behalf of the League: "We feel that it really should not be an elective office. It never was intended to be an elective office, except after the Civil War and the Reconstruction days. It worked well after the Civil War to keep out the carpetbaggers."

She's right about that.

Only in six southern states are school superintendents elected.

Researchers Jill Schuh and Carolyn Herrington, in their report sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, and titled, Electing Versus Appointing District Superintendents of Schools, found that "the large number of political appointments of scalawags and carpetbaggers to state and local offices and the resulting abuses resulted in an extreme suspicion of outside control and embedded the practice of electing local officials."

It was just such a suspicion that led Tom Weightman to change his mind.

Keep it elected

In an interview for this article last Monday, Weightman publicly made a stunning declaration. Over the last year and a half, he has come to believe the position should remain elected.

He no longer supports an appointed superintendent because he fears the influence of those who have "a narrow-minded view of what education ought to be and who I think have an agenda of forcing their own brand of morality and Christianity on the majority of people."

Weightman said he believes that conservative Christians could impose their views on the School Board and have undue influence in the process of appointing a superintendent.

On the issue of the minimal qualifications required to run for office, Weightman now says:

". . . think voters are more aware. I think they're attuned to the candidates and their backgrounds. I think, frankly, the press does a good job of stating the qualifications and the backgrounds of people who are running."

James Hollingsworth agrees. The Pasco-Hernando Community College political science professor argued the pro-elected view in a public debate last year.

"The American public is not always wise in its choices," he said in an interview Wednesday, "but it's a helluva lot wiser than most people think. I trust them a lot more than three of five board (votes)."

Speaking of the majority vote on a five-member board, Hollingsworth disputed the notion that appointing the superintendent takes the job out of the political realm.

"The people who argue that somehow you're going to remove politics by having the board choose, I don't know what they're talking about," he said.

Hollingsworth said the opinion of a majority of board members, subject to political machinations, could too easily change.

"The superintendent is riding one vote and he has to be careful to keep that vote," he said. "Then the election comes along and it's 3-2 in the opposite (direction) and, bang, he's gone."

The federal report, citing studies from 1985 and 1959 concludes: "Although, theoretically, the superintendent's job is to implement the policies designed by the school board, in real life they have assumed a much larger role in the policymaking process. . . . Whatever role a superintendent "plays' in a local school system, school board members and superintendents are engaged in political activity whether they are elected or appointed."

Politics aside, there's still the issue of whether or not Pasco voters are willing to vote to give up a vote.

"I believe that too many things have been taken away from us," said Carole Lott, chairman of the county Republican Party, which supports keeping the job elected. "Our local level needs to get down to the fact that they need to be responsible to the local people, the parents, the children."

Although he didn't express his personal opinion on the subject, Nunnery, the University of Florida emeritus professor, did say that Pasco County might be a place where there isn't a compelling need for change.

"In a place like Pasco County, if the people want an elected superintendent then, doggone it, who's to say they shouldn't have an elected superintendent," Nunnery said. "And who's to say they haven't done pretty well?"

This goes back to the issue of local control.

"Local control in the South is considered a basic democratic right and continues to be an important issue in many communities," the federal report said.

The report also cited research that found that turnout for school elections "has as high a voter turnout as for U.S. Senate elections, much higher than previously reported."

The basic debate on the elected versus appointed issue is no different here than anywhere else in the South. But there is one factor unique to Pasco, which in the short run may make the issue moot.

The John Long factor

John Long announced months ago that he would give up his shot at becoming Florida's next House speaker in order to either run for superintendent or apply, depending on the result of the referendum.

Long is Weightman's top assistant. And he is extremely popular in the community.

He already had amassed donations for re-election to his House District 45 seat. After he decided he would rather be Pasco school superintendent, he informed donors, most of whom have no interest in the county school district, but nearly all of them told him to keep the money. He will have a $60,000 war chest should he have to run for the office.

"You just put another variable in there," Nunnery said of Long's decision. "If John Long is the favorite of the board _ and I doubt he would apply if he didn't think he had the support of the board, the man's not a fool _ one of the things that swould influence people is it's going to cost you some money to do a search."

Hollingsworth was on the PHCC committee that conducted a national search to find a replacement for the college's founding president Milton Jones. The board wound up appointing Robert Judson, Jones' popular longtime top assistant. Hollingsworth had argued that the board ought to just appoint Judson outright.

"I believe that John Long would probably get it if it were appointed, just as he would no doubt win it if it is elected," Hollingsworth said. "The fact is, though, that if it becomes appointed and these people decide to look nationwide and go through a great deal of mish-mash and they wind up with John Long, I would submit they've blown about 50 grand."

Proponents of an appointed superintendent argue the cost of a national search would be money well spent. It could bring to light a candidate superior to Long. And if Long emerges the favorite at the end of such a search then the board and community could feel confident he was the absolute top person for the job.

Further, just because Long is the favorite to get the job no matter what the voters decide Nov. 8, voters have to consider the longer term.

Anything could happen between now and 1996 when Weightman retires, proponents argue. Besides, they say, John Long won't live forever. Sooner or later, Pasco will have to find his successor.

Long himself won't take a public stance on the referendum. And, despite his switch of positions, Weightman said he will not campaign on the issue.

The Times sought the opinion of state Education Commissioner Doug Jamerson, who was appointed by the governor to his post but now must be elected to stay in the job. He called from his car as he left an editorial board interview and headed for a campaign stop.

"I work just as well with the elected superintendents as I do with the appointed since I've been commissioner," he said. "They're all qualified."

Then he brought up the Long factor, saying he had heard that "Johnny Long" was a candidate. Given that, Jamerson said, Pasco voters can't go wrong either way they go.

"With him, it's a win-win situation."

_ Times Researchers Kitty Bennett and Debbie Wolf contributed to this report.

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