The simmering debate over whether the county schools should end direct election of the superintendent, in favor of having the school board hire them, began to bubble last week, with the exploration of details of what such a change would entail.
The Town Hall meeting May 13 at Franklin County High School was attended by a cross-section of parents from around the county, concerned taxpayers, interested school district employees and all five school board members, who are expected to decide next month whether to place a binding referendum on the November ballot to switch over in 2016 to an appointed superintendent.
Dr. Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association for the past 29 years, offered a Power Point presentation on how such a change would affect the interplay between the school board, the superintendent and the school system.
“I’m not here to sell you on elected or appointed,” he said. “I have seen elected and I’ve seen appointed superintendents. I can tell you there are pros and cons on both sides.”
Blanton outlined the relative scarcity of school districts nationwide that elect superintendents, as they are confined to Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, and are only in 142 school districts out of just over 13,500 districts in America, or about 1 percent.
In Florida, superintendents are elected in 41 out of 67 districts, mostly in the smaller and mid-sized districts. He said while large districts tend to have appointed superintendents, Lake, Polk, Okeechobee and Flagler counties are among the medium size districts to opt for an appointed school chief.
Blanton said Florida is also one of only six states where both school board members and superintendents have constitutional officer status. He outlined provisions of the Florida constitution, and within statute, that govern who oversees a school district, noting that whether hired or appointed, a superintendent manages and supervises district operations, while the school board sets policy and approves the budget.
“The local superintendent runs the school system, manages the people, recommends for hiring,” he said. “They have to run the school system the same way. The superintendent executes school board policy.”
While to be elected as superintendent, an individual need only be a registered voter within the county, an appointed superintendent must meet standards of education, training and experience set forth by the school board, Blanton said.
More than half of the state’s 26 appointed superintendents hold doctorate degrees; fewer than half of 1 percent in those where they are elected hold such a degree. “I’ve never known a district that hired somebody with less than a master’s degree,” he said.
“Your pool is small (in Franklin County) when you really get down to it,” said Blanton. “You would have the ability to draw from a very large pool on a national basis.”
If the school board opts for a binding referendum, county commissioners would be obligated to place it in the November ballot, Blanton said. If then passed by majority vote, the school board would have the responsibility of searching for and finding a superintendent to begin when Marks’ current term expires in Oct. 2016.
In his many years at the FSBA, Blanton has been part of 83 superintendent searches, on behalf of counties throughout the state. While Franklin County is not a member of the FSBA, opting over the past few years to save the roughly $5,000 in annual membership dues, the school board could turn to FSBA to conduct a nationwide search, lasting about four to six months, at an estimated cost of about $10,000 to $15,000.
Citizens committee would assist selection
To assist in the selection, from what Blanton said could be as many as 50 applicants, including individuals from within the county, a citizens committee could be created by the school board, made up of a cross-section of citizens from throughout the county.
“I’ve never had a board turn down a citizens committee’s recommendation,” said Blanton. “You need to work through the process so the community is comfortable.”
He said one advantage to having an appointed superintendent is that the community can find a candidate who has the training and experience to meet specific goals, whether to improve public relations, or bolster vocational education, or whatever the priorities may be.
“What you look at is the community’s needs,” Blanton said. “Neither superman or superwoman is available. But you go out and find that superintendent with that track record. Your qualifications and what you come to is very, very important. It is important that the school board and superintendent have good communication.”
He said electing a superintendent from among local candidates has advantages as well. “You're going to elect somebody you know, you’re going to elect somebody from your community, who’s going to know the needs of this community,” he said. “(With an appointed superintendent), there’s going to be a little learning curve.”
Blanton said that while he or she does not face reelection, and serves only at the pleasure of the school board, an appointed superintendent is shielded from election politics, but that does not mean politics is removed completely from the school district.
“All elections affecting the school district tend to draw employees into the politics of the election,” he said.
Blanton said that terms of a contract between the school board and the superintendent are negotiated, and generally run three years, with provisions for termination, buyout, sick leave, and such. He said that while candidates from within Florida may seek ways to remain on the state retirement system, those from out-of-state generally will negotiate an annuity or some other retirement option.
Overall, the cost of an appointed superintendent is expected to run more than that of an elected one, depending on education and experience, Blanton said.
Asked about the effect of a switch from elected to appointed on academic performance, Blanton said he has not seen a pattern. “I thought I could find a difference and I have not been able to find a significant difference whether student test scores differ between elected and appointed,” he said, while noting that Florida scores tend to outpace those in the other two states that still elect superintendents.
Blanton said he knew of only one Florida district to have switched back to an elected superintendent. He said Lake County went from elected to appointed, then back to elected, and six years ago went back to appointed. “It’s the only one I know of in 39 years,” he said.