Before Escambia County citizens surrender their authority and right to choose their superintendent to three school board members (the majority of a five-member school board), they must know the facts behind the choice.
1. No Student Performance Benefit
Whether a superintendent is hired by the citizens through an election or hired by the school board through an appointment, neither by itself is a predictor of student success or school district performance as illustrated by 2017-18 Florida Department of Education (FDOE) data that shows that 60% of Florida’s top 20 school districts – all of them “A” school districts – and 52% of the school districts that have a graduation rate of 80% or higher all have elected superintendents.
2. Education Level of Superintendents Not a Factor
The fact that 70% of Florida’s “A” school districts and 76% of Florida’s “B” school districts (including Escambia County) are led by superintendents who do not hold doctorates in education proves that the data does not support the suggestion that superintendents who hold EdD degrees produce better results.
3. Preserve Checks and Balances
The Escambia County School District currently has a leadership structure that includes an elected executive (the superintendent) and an elected legislative body (the school board) which has successfully leveraged a system of checks and balances to protect Escambia citizens from abuse and corruption. An elected superintendent is accountable to the same people that the elected school board is accountable to: the people of Escambia County. With a board-appointed superintendent there would be NO checks and balances because the superintendent would be controlled by the school board, not counter-balanced by it.
4. Keep Politics Out of Our Schools
Assertions that campaign contributions make the superintendent “beholden to wealthy contributors instead of focusing on our teachers and students” ignores the fact that an elected superintendent is no more susceptible to donor influence than elected school board members.
Furthermore, citizens should be aware that having an appointed superintendent can actually be MORE political than having an elected superintendent. School board members can intimidate, threaten, and harbor ill will toward superintendents who don’t champion or accommodate their personal causes, issues, and wants. That political pressure can easily find its way into schools through principals and into departments through department heads who can be left in the difficult position of reconciling competing political interests and directives at the expense of otherwise consistent, apolitical district-wide practices.
Here in Escambia County, we have seen through the experiences of County government that having appointed executives is not always the most effective, most orderly, and least political approach. The county went through 7 county administrators (including interim administrators) between 1998 and 2012, including 4 between 2008 and 2012.
Although the Escambia County School Board is stable today, many Escambia citizens remember that the Escambia County School Board itself has had its share of embarrassment when power plays, internal politics, and drama among school board members made headlines.
5. Appointed Superintendents are Expensive
The salaries of appointed superintendents in Florida are generally significantly higher than the salaries of their elected counterparts. In fact, the average base salary for appointed superintendents in 2017-18 was nearly $100,000 more than for their elected peers. In school districts that are already struggling to make budgets meet their needs, one must ask whether paying a lot of money to an appointed superintendent is worth the cost, particularly in view of the fact that there is no evidence that appointing a superintendent improves school district performance. Taxpayers should be concerned that having a board-appointed superintendent would likely cost them at least $1 million more in superintendent salary over the next ten years.
6. Citizens Should Be a Part of School District Solutions
So-called “low performing” and “failing” schools do not owe their outcomes exclusively to the leadership of the school district and to the principals and teachers at individual schools.
Teachers and administrators absolutely must be accountable, but the term “failing schools” does not sufficiently describe what is happening in our most challenging schools. Rather than simply saying that there is a problem with “failing schools,” a more apt characterization would acknowledge the “failing situations” that are exposed in our schools, not caused by them. Those failing situations impact standardized test scores which determine school and district grades. The failing situations are the core problem; they are what we should be solving.
Certainly, the citizens of Escambia County must be a part of the solution, not apart from it. To that end, they should vote “NO” on the costly ballot item that would require them to surrender to three members of the school board their right and authority to choose their district superintendent.