Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
September 20, 2016 1:00 a.m.
Now that the 2016 race for Superintendent of Nassau County Schools has all but been put away, this might be a good time to look at a question that several readers have raised over the election cycle: why is our local school superintendent elected and not appointed by the School Board? Especially since less than one percent of school systems nationwide have elected superintendents.
Florida is one of only three states—Alabama and Mississippi are the other two—that allow for elected school superintendents. In all three states, however, local districts may opt for appointed school superintendents. In Florida, each of the 67 counties has its own school district. Of those, 41 are elected and 26 are appointed by the local school board. In Northeast Florida, four counties have opted to appoint school superintendents: Alachua, Duval, Flagler and St. Johns.
2015-16 Florida School District rankings
Of the ten highest ranked school systems in Florida, five are administered by appointed school superintendents and four elect their superintendents. The top ranked school—P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School—is an anomaly. Currently rated as A-, the school was designed as a special school district under Florida Department of Education funding and has been given the responsibility to develop innovative solutions to educational concerns in the state and to disseminate successful instructional programs to other school districts. P.K. Yonge educates 1,144 students through two schools covering Kindergarten through grade 12.
Nassau County ranked 8th, with a rating of B+. The district educates 11,155 students from Pre-K through 12th grade in 21 schools. According to state standards, 66% of students in this district are considered proficient in math and/or reading. The district has an annual budget of $94,792,000, spending an average of $8,528 per student. Nassau County elects its School Superintendent.
The only Northeast Florida school district to rank higher than Nassau County was St. Johns County, which ranked second in the state with a rating of A-. It has 33,583 students attending 49 schools in grades PK and K-12. According to state standards, 75% of students in this district are considered proficient in math and/or reading. The district has an annual budget of $292,268,000, spending an average of $9,255 per student. St. Johns County appoints its School Superintendent.
By comparison, the two lowest rated Florida school districts are Gadsden County and Jefferson County. Both of these counties elect their school superintendents.
Gadsden County (rated D and ranked second to last) has 6,012 students attending 24 schools in grades PK and K-12. According to state standards, 44% of students in this district are considered proficient in math and/or reading. The district has an annual budget of $60,840,000, spending an average of $9,856 per student.
Jefferson County, graded at D- and ranked last, has 963 students attending 7 schools in grades PK and K-12. According to state standards, 33% of students in this district are considered proficient in math and/or reading. The district has an annual budget of $11,889,000, spending an average of $11,554 per student.
The arguments for elected school superintendents
Proponents of elected superintendents tend to argue their support on three grounds: tradition, checks and balances vis-a-vis the school board, and cost savings. According to a recent report from WUFT http://www.wuft.org/news/2016/07/05/superintendents/
“ ‘The main benefit for elected superintendents is a level of independence from the school board,’ Thomas Valesky said. ‘This can be good or bad, but elected superintendents are more free to speak against policies they think do not benefit the district.’ ” Valesky is a professor of educational leadership at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Elected superintendents must meet county residency requirements, which is somewhat of a guarantee that the individual elected knows and understands the culture and values of the community. No professional background is required. Salaries for elected school superintendents are set by a state formula based upon the number of students in the district.
Benefits of appointed school superintendents
According to the WUFT report cited above, advocates for appointed school superintendents point to Florida Department of Education district grades. Over 90 percent of districts with an appointed superintendent received an A or B from the department in 2015, whereas 14 of the 41 districts with elected superintendents received C or D grades. None of the districts with appointed superintendents received a D from the department.
School districts can recruit from a wider geographic area to field candidates for positions as school superintendents, since there is no residency requirement. Also, salary limitation is not necessarily a bar to attracting the best candidate, since the state salary formula only applies to elected superintendents. School Boards appointing their superintendents can broaden their candidate pool by reaching outside the county and offering as large a salary as necessary to attract the best candidate.
As a small county, Nassau County has been extremely fortunate in its current and future elected superintendents. Dr. John Ruis, who has served as Nassau County Superintendent since the 1990’s, came up through the ranks. He served as dean and instructor at Hilliard Junior-Senior High School and Principal of West Nassau High School before running for election as School Superintendent. Dr. Kathy Burns, who won the Republican Primary against local politician Janet Adkins, has experience both as an elected School Board Member/Board Chair and teacher. Dr. Burns has spent 20 years in the classroom, eight of which were in Nassau County, and was named Teacher of the Year in 1992, 2008, and 2014.
But what would happen to our schools and the quality of education if Nassau County could not produce candidates to run for School Superintendent with qualifications equal to those of Ruis and Burns? Would taxpayers and parents be satisfied with schools run by a successful candidate whose only technical qualifications are being 18 years old and a county resident?
Earlier referendum on the issue
The idea of changing from an elected to an appointed School Superintendent in Nassau County is not new. Following considerable community debate in the 1999-2000 timeframe, both the School Board and the Superintendent supported putting the question out to a vote as provided for in Florida Statutes:
The measure made its way to the ballot in the November 2000 General Election:
But the voters soundly defeated that referendum. With a 72.2 percent voter turnout in that election, the electorate rejected this proposition by a vote of 18,018 to 4,932.
The last attempt to change the method of School Superintendent selection failed for a variety of reasons. Some voters believed it was a move to get rid of Superintendent Ruis, which it was not. The incumbent would have been allowed to complete his term of office and be considered for appointment by the School Board. Some voters believed that their voting rights were being undermined by making the position an appointed one. But most critically, there was no person or group or political action committee educating the electorate on benefits that such a change could bring to the schools and county students. Without a clear understanding of the issue, the safest course of action for county voters was to just say no. And they did — in capital letters.
The situation today
Times and circumstances change, however. Many Nassau County voters have expressed distaste—if not downright disgust—with the 2016 School Superintendent campaign, deploring the tone, focus and dark money that detracted from what should have been a debate over which candidate had the best plan for improving our already successful schools and providing world class educations to all our students.
Any campaign to change the status quo must take its time to educate the voters outside the heat of partisan elections. It may take several years to bring the issue back for another vote. But without the investment of time and money to promote the benefits of an appointed School Superintendent, any future referendum will share the same fate as the 2000 referendum.
There is another approach to improve the system, should voters prefer to stay with the elected superintendent: add more requirements to the candidate qualification process. For example, in Mississippi, candidates for School Superintendent must possess at a minimum an administrator’s license, known as a double A (AA) or a Masters degree in Educational Leadership. To add qualifications would involve legislative action.
Another question that has arisen regarding the School Superintendent election is why, since School Board races are non-partisan, does the Superintendent race remain a partisan race? The answer is that requirements for constitutional officers—of which the School Superintendent is one–and their elections are set statewide for all non-charter counties, of which Nassau is one.
If local voters desire to pursue non-partisan elections for constitutional officers or change other aspects of the school superintendent’s relationship to the school board, then citizens must be willing to pursue charter government for Nassau County. To date, while many have talked about such an effort, no person or group has taken that task in hand.
Readers interested in what charter government entails, may search the Fernandina Observer website for a series of articles that appeared earlier on that topic.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.