As school board candidates backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Moms for Liberty gain a foothold across Florida, they’ve targeted superintendents as barriers to their agenda.
Since November, the chief administrators in Broward, Brevard, Flagler, Collier, Sarasota, Escambia and Duval counties have been fired or pushed to leave. The interim leader in Brevard was quickly pushed out, too.
And in Hernando County, Superintendent John Stratton survived a no-confidence vote this past week as the two right-leaning members of his board couldn’t convince a third colleague to back them up.
That made Stratton a rarity among Florida superintendents: He’s still standing.
Across the state, Stratton is among five current board-appointed superintendents who held the same post in 2020. Over the past four years, Florida’s 67 districts will have seen 61 new superintendents by the time July 1 rolls around.
“It’s one of the most serious issues in terms of public education that Florida faces,” said Bill Montford, a former state senator who leads the state superintendents association. “Could you imagine if you had 61 new sheriffs in Florida in the last four years, what kind of impact that would have on law enforcement?”
He worried about what effect the “brain drain” might have on K-12 education leadership at a time when so many people have focused on the system and its role. Montford stressed that he’s not questioning the boards’ decisions.
“We have to be careful,” he said. “Obviously, there is a sizable percentage of our population that thinks what we are doing in Florida is long overdue, that now we’re going to get people in there who will listen to parents and do a better job. … Others are saying we’ve got some of the best superintendents in the country, and we’re removing them (unnecessarily) from positions.”
A key concern, he added, is that potential new leaders might never apply.
Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said her organization’s superintendent search division has seen interest dwindle in openings. When Polk County needed a new superintendent in 2021, Messina said, it received 52 applications. Charlotte County’s search this year yielded 19 applicants.
“There are always people who have trained their whole life and want the opportunity to make a difference,” Messina said. “What we are also finding is many people who have trained and want to make a difference are pausing right now.”
It’s not just a Florida thing, she noted. Her counterparts around the nation are seeing similar situations.
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“Education is in a state of transition, and the most obvious single visual demonstration of change is a new superintendent,” Messina said, adding that concerns about job security are a factor.
Bay County Superintendent Bill Husfelt, who’s also president of the superintendents association, said he gets it. He’s planning to leave his elected post in July, more than a year before his term expires.
He said it’s become increasingly difficult to run a district, which often is a county’s largest employer, under the incessant glare of social media, in which both the political right and left offer no room for even simple mistakes. When someone gets angry about something, he said, it takes on a life of its own and superintendents face myriad rules tying their hands about how they can respond.
Husfelt said communities need to set standards and find ways to let superintendents do their jobs.
“If we don’t come up with the priorities that we want our superintendents to be and do, if we’re going to focus on every little tiny thing that superintendents do, you’re going to need to get ready to keep hiring new superintendents every single year, because they’re going to keep leaving,” Husfelt said.
After sitting through his board’s confidence vote, Hernando superintendent Stratton said he hoped to reset the district’s direction, working with the board and community. At the same time, he criticized the two members who targeted him and rejected some of the assertions they made, such as the notion that teachers are indoctrinating students.
The two members, in turn, said they had no intention of backing down. And other candidates who support them are already stepping up for the 2024 election.
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