The resignation of former Alachua County Schools Superintendent Owen Roberts last month has raised the long-standing discussion over the pros and cons of appointing versus electing a school district’s chief executive officer.
The Alachua County School Board voted to accept Roberts’ resignation June 21. Roberts, who was appointed to his position in 2014, was the only school superintendent in North Central Florida not elected by county voters. Of the 11 counties in the area, 10 have elected superintendents. Forty-one of the state’s 67 counties elect their respective superintendent of schools.
“It is the will of the people,” said Bobby James, the current chair of the Marion County School Board, about the election process of selecting a superintendent.
Alachua County’s school superintendent is instead appointed by the school board. When the position is appointed, the school board is able to conduct a nationwide search for eligible candidates, James said. The board can set education requirements for applicants, as well as offer more compensation than state law allows for elected officials.
Marion County voters in the 2008 election were asked if they wanted to switch to an appointed superintendent. Sixty-two percent of voters voted no.
Marion County is the state’s second most populated county to elect its superintendent of schools — behind only Pasco County.
Three of the state’s 20 most populated counties elect their superintendent of schools: Pasco, Marion and Escambia counties.
Thomas Valesky, a professor of educational leadership at Florida Gulf Coast University, said there are major limitations when the position is elected instead of appointed.
“You are not going to be able to attract talent from around the country,” he said.
Individuals who run for elected superintendent positions have to reside in the county where they are seeking the position. A professional background in education is not required. Kurt Browning, superintendent of schools of Pasco County, served as Florida’s secretary of state before being elected school superintendent in 2012.
Valesky said elected superintendents do not have to “please the school board,” which can strain relationship with the school board. But appointed superintendents also often have issues with keeping their boards content.
The main benefit for elected superintendents is a level of independence from the school board, 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.
Advocates for an appointed superintendent of schools 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.
In North Central Florida, Alachua County received an A from the department, as did Gilchrist and Union counties. Four counties received a B, three a C and one — Hamilton County — a D.
Gilchrist County Superintendent of Schools Rob Rankin, who was elected in 2012, said he’s not sure there’s much of a difference between an appointed and an elected superintendent. He said he still has to maintain a good relationship with his board, as board members are “who keep your livelihood.”
Rankin said the main difference is to whom the superintendent ultimately answers. Appointed superintendents can be fired by their boards. Rankin was previously a teacher, administrator and school board member in Gilchrist County.
“If you have three board members [of five] who don’t think you’re doing a satisfactory job, they can get rid of you,” Rankin said.
He referred to the case of former Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, whose board let her go about a year after she was named Florida’s Superintendent of the Year by the Florida Association of District Superintendents.
In North Central Florida, the 10 elected superintendents have all served longer terms than Roberts, though each makes less money annually than he did during his tenure.
Alachua County Education Association President Karen McCann boiled the difference down to trust.
“There are people who feel like they don’t want to entrust the school board to make the decision,” said McCann, adding that there are others who feel that by electing the school board members, one entrusts them with the decision to choose who the superintendent will be.
McCann said arguments about how the superintendent is chosen often come when people aren’t happy with the superintendent, whether that individual is elected or appointed.
The salary of elected school superintendents is calculated based on the population of the county. Lafayette County pays its superintendent the least of the North Central Florida counties — $93,479 each year, just $9 more than Liberty County’s superintendent, the lowest in the state.
Alachua County paid Roberts $160,000 annually — more than the average $103,966 that elected superintendents in the area receive, according to the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.
Marion County, the most populated of the 11 counties in North Central Florida, pays its elected school superintendent $137,823 annually. However, this is still less than Alachua County, which has about 10,000 fewer students.