A school board member last week asked colleagues to consider placing a measure before voters that could end the direct election of the superintendent of schools, who would instead be hired by a vote of the school board.
Pam Shiver, now in the second year of her first term on the board, on March 6 shared with the board a written outline that asked them to consider the pros and cons of having a hired, rather than an elected, superintendent.
“I basically want to do a study on this, and that’s something that has to be done quickly,” she said, asking that her fellow school board members begin discussion of the proposal at their April 3 meeting.
If a majority of the board votes to place the matter on the November ballot, it would then require a vote by the county commissioners to place the referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot. If a majority of county voters support the measure, it would then go into effect after Superintendent Nina Marks completes her term in 2016. First elected in Nov. 2008, Marks was re-elected in 2012 without opposition.
In her opening remarks, Shiver indicated she was moving forward with her proposal now because it was well in advance of when possible candidacies would surface ahead of the Nov. 2016 election.
“Franklin County has been fortunate to have a highly qualified representative in our superintendent position in terms of the past, and also in the current seat,” Shiver said. “The nature of this study is to consider options that will allow for a broader pool of qualified candidates to be considered as the CEO of our school system, based solely on professional qualifications and leadership skill.
“Our superintendent has done an exemplary job in her but has voiced her lack of desire to run for an additional term,” she said. “The process is not intended to undermine the control of the local voter but to enhance the ability to choose the best candidate whose qualifications are currently limited to county borders.”
Shiver noted that any registered voter at least 18 years old is entitled to run for the superintendent post, which this fiscal year pays $94,071, as per state statute. “There are no qualifications to run for the position,” she said.
Presently, 26 of Florida’s 67 counties – or about 40 percent – have hired superintendents, with the remaining 41 counties, mainly the small and mid-size ones, continuing to elect their superintendents. According to a 2012 Tennessee study, only three states - Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi - allow for local districts to elect superintendents. Across those states, 147 of the 355 districts, or about 41 percent, elect superintendents - a total representing less than 1 percent of the more than 14,000 districts nationwide.
Last week, the Walton County school board voted 4-1 to draw up a resolution to switch to a hired superintendent, which that board plans to vote on at an upcoming meeting.
Shiver said her research of the issue on the internet brought forth both supporting and opposing arguments for a hired superintendent, which she outlined for the board.
In her summary of the supporting arguments, she wrote that a hired superintendent would be accountable to the school board and could be removed at any time for failure to meet established goals and performance standards.
“Some may argue that the elected superintendent is more accessible and accountable to the public. However once the superintendent is elected, only ethical violations or the end of term may remove the individual from seat,” Shiver cited. “The superintendent is accountable to the school board to achieve common goals.”
She noted in the supporting arguments that a hired superintendent would be less affected by politics, or driven by a personal agenda. “Some districts that have hired superintendents claim that the system is more balanced since the board and the superintendent are not both elected positions,” wrote Shiver. “The hired superintendent would not be concerned about pleasing a constituent base and not beholden to political supporters.”
She stressed that hiring a superintendent would provide a larger pool of qualified school leaders. “We would no longer be limited to individuals living in district and are willing to or can afford to run for office,” Shiver wrote. “Our CEO should spend his or her effort on student achievement and not how each decision will affect next election. The superintendent of our schools should spend their time working with administrators to improve our school, rather than giving attention to winning an election.”
Alongside the supporting arguments, Shiver noted the opposing arguments.
“Generally, hired superintendents have a higher pay scale to include benefits package, career development, and perks,” she wrote. “Canceling contract may result in severance and leave pay.”
Shiver wrote that a committee would have to be formed to set job description, requirements and contract. “A search and hiring committee will need to be established and may result in additional expenses,” she said.
Lastly, she wrote that “voters may feel an outsider is not able to relate to our unique area.”
The only school board member to speak on the issue was David Hinton, who served in the Air Force before becoming a science teacher at Carrabelle High School.
“As a retired military person, one of the things I’m concerned about is that I don’t want us to ever give up a vote for anybody for anything,” he said. “No one has ever said constitutional government is the most efficient government, (but I do not want) to take away the vote from the public.”
Shiver replied that some in the community have said “it felt like it was unbalanced to have a board and superintendent (both elected). They felt like ti was counterproductive.
“I think it would be something worth looking into,” she said.