A citizen commented on the Pensacola News Journal Facebook page the other day that he thinks the referendum that asks citizens to surrender their right to vote for their superintendent will fail "because people rightly ask why would all this 'dark money' be contributed to a PAC on this issue."
While we agree with his sentiment generally, "dark money" as it applies to politics is actually money that is given in unlimited amounts by undisclosed donors. Criticism of them centers around the influence that those vasts amounts of unattributed dollars exert over elections because of the resources that they bring to bear to shower the electorate with information that sometimes more closely resembles propaganda.
In the case of this referendum, however, there has been no "dark money" that we know of. The $159,400 that has been donated to the PAC that is trying to influence voters to surrender their right to elect their superintendent is not technically "dark money." Quint Studer's donation of $159,350 of that money is in the sunshine and is posted on the Florida Division of Elections web site for the public to see. He has also made no secret of the fact that he founded the PAC himself; his operations and communications chief is also the chairman of the PAC. All of that is very legal and above board.
Nevertheless, the author of that PNJ Facebook comment captured the concern that many voters are expressing about the dubious claims that it "is for the good of the children" and the suggestions "that really smart people know better than parents of kids in schools" about how their schools should be led.
That skepticism is very real, and we're reminded constantly of the elitist view that seems to look down on how we do things here. Their sense that we're just a bunch of bumpkins out here voting for other bumpkins for superintendent was recently caricatured by the PNJ's editorial cartoonist Andy Marlette in his depiction of Escambia voters and school superintendent candidates as a pot-bellied guy named "Bubba," a buck-toothed gawky guy named "Skeeter," and a cross-eyed dog named "Lil' Bear." It's Marlette's job to exaggerate for effect, but then the PAC distributed the cartoon on social media as part of its argument for why locals shouldn't elect locals for superintendent. That's when the caricature became an insulting elitist political statement.
Voter skepticism has been further fueled by the PAC's rampant distortion of the facts and its bold assurances of a brighter day in Escambia education if citizens vote to surrender their right to vote for their superintendent.
For instance, the PAC knows that the statements that they've made that Escambia County's superintendent selection method is archaic because "99.5%" of the rest of the country is appointing their superintendents is grossly mischaracterized. They've seen the data and they know that it is virtually impossible to accurately compare Florida school districts to others because of disparities in size, structure, and regional educational support, but they continue to feed citizens that misinformation in order to tell them that we're behind the times. Why? They've spent tens of thousands of dollars to put that information in front of the public; maybe they hope citizens won't know better.
Likewise, although they're fully aware that the last three Florida school districts that made the move to an appointed superintendent have not fared well with the change at all, they continue to tell us that if we appoint our superintendent rather than elect him or her, we'll see better results. Then, although they realize that there is data and information that shows great success in our schools, they focus on only one data point as if it is the only indicator of student and school district performance. They also know that there are at least four reputable data-based studies that have demonstrated that whether a superintendent is elected or appointed has no bearing on student performance. It doesn't matter if they were selected from a nationwide search, it doesn't matter if they have a doctorate, and it doesn't matter how much we pay them. None of it has a bearing because there are core factors that DO bear on student performance, and how we select our superintendent isn't one of them.
People who have been drawn to this issue are asking why our elected government officials don't do something about those core factors – especially the pockets of poverty in the communities where our lower performing students reside - instead of leaving it to classroom teachers and principals to deal with alone. They know where those pockets of poverty are, but they haven't demonstrated the leadership that our community needs to CURE the cyclical poverty that DIRECTLY harms student performance and growth potential in the first place. Why don't they pour tax dollars and real effort into resolving them instead of REDUCING the funding for critical infrastructure in those communities then pointing a finger at the school district as if it has failed those communities? It's easier to jump on a bandwagon than it is to lead.
Our republic owes its character and success to the voice of the people expressed at the ballot box, not to the powerful interests that want to suppress that voice or drown it in a flood of misleading marketing material. We make our republic stronger by showing that the real power resides in the hands of the people.
This Tuesday on November 6th, "Vote NO on Losing Control" of your right to elect your superintendent.