The moment of truth is at hand for the Hernando County School Board. In the coming weeks they will select a new superintendent of schools. It probably will be the single most important decision they will make during their tenures on the board.
Not only will the board members be faced with the difficulty of choosing the right person for the job, their success or failure in doing so will test the strength of the appointed superintendent system.
There are plenty of people in this county who are still not convinced that appointing a superintendent is better than electing one. The closeness of the vote on the 1992 referendum is proof of that division.
Many of the supporters of an elected superintendent method were quick to adopt an I-told-you-so attitude when former Superintendent Harold Winkler headed for the hills of North Carolina after he and a majority of the School Board were unable to negotiate the early renewal of a multiyear employment contract. His early departure and an election-year controversy about a possible tax increase were proof, the elected superintendent advocates claimed, that the appointed system was inherently flawed.
The critics of the appointed superintendent method are waiting to see if the School Board members are as capable as voters in selecting the new superintendent. If this new hire doesn't work out, you can bet your last dollar that the pro-election backers will be out in force and campaigning for another referendum on the issue.
Making the right choice for such an important job already is a tremendous charge. Human frailties, political opportunism and the financial and educational uncertainties of the district combine to present a trio of long-term possibilities that make it intimidating to undertake such a chore. But if you are a board member and you factor in the knowledge that this decision also could result in your constituents changing the way they govern themselves, the duty becomes almost paralyzing.
To help them with this monumental task, the School Board employed the services of a group of residents to screen the applicants for superintendent. The committee has narrowed the list of 15 hopefuls to nine, and the board will meet once more to whittle that number to five. The finalists will be invited for in-person interviews.
While it usually is admirable to try to involve diverse members of the community in the decisionmaking process, this is not one of those instances. The magnitude of the choice is such that it should have been handled solely by the elected officials in whom we have placed our trust.
This is in no way a criticism of the volunteers from the community who have labored dutifully to fulfill the assignment they were given by the School Board. Their work is appreciated by all and cannot be justifiably demeaned by anyone, except perhaps the applicants who didn't make the committee's short list.
But over time their efforts are likely to be either trivialized or exaggerated. If the board's choice for superintendent does well and becomes an educational hero, the board members _ politicians all _ will be quick to take credit for making the right pick.
If the new superintendent turns out to be incompetent or a jerk (or both) the board members will attempt to disassociate themselves from the decision, saying they were, after all, forced to select from the weak field of candidates the residents committee recommended.
Regardless of what twist will be put on the process down the road, the residents of Hernando County should not allow the board members to escape the consequences of their actions. Good or bad, the selection of a new superintendent of schools rests squarely on their shoulders, as does the appointed superintendent system of governing our schools.
And the board members' futures rests squarely on yours.