Tensions between Marion County Schools Superintendent Heidi Maier and the district’s school board are still running high, but the stand-off does not seem to be affecting school operations, board member Beth McCall said.
McCall said the conflict likely will continue until the board hires a new superintendent in November 2020, when Maier’s elected term as superintendent ends.
Maier was elected in November 2016, but in November 2018, Marion County voters approved an appointment-based system for choosing a superintendent that will replace the current process of electing a candidate to the position.
Maier had said in January 2019 that she would step down as superintendent in June, but she later decided to stay on through November 2020, when she would have had to run for re-election under the old system.
McCall said Marion County will hire a new superintendent in 2020.
“That’s the solution,” she said.
In August, board members made an initial decision to prevent Maier from even applying for the superintendent position in 2020.
When Maier hired Ferro as her personal attorney in late August 2019, tensions between her and the school board – which were already considerable — only heightened. Because school board attorney Paul Gibbs is responsible for representing the school board, Maier hired Ferro to manage communication between her office and the board. On Sept. 25, 2019, Maier sent all school district staff a memo telling them to send all school board requests to Ferro.
Maier acknowledged, however, that hiring Ferro has not made her relationship with the board run more smoothly.
School board members have chosen to ignore the memo, believing that Maier is overstepping her boundaries and violating not only Florida statutes, but school board policy as well, McCall said. Maier’s decision to hire Ferro is negatively affecting everybody employed by the school district, she said.
Maier’s memo has not interfered with the oversight of the school district because school board members are not abiding by it, McCall said. She still talks to whomever she needs to in order to make decisions that are her responsibility to make, she said. In order to make those decisions, she must talk to district staff.
But it’s not easy.
“I think we’re walking on pins and needles, and we’re not real sure what way to move,” McCall said.
She said when Maier was first elected in 2016, the district initially went through a honeymoon period, but tensions have since risen between Maier and certain school board members.
Ferro said the rising tensions have to do with board members getting involved in the day-to-day operations of the school board. The main job of board members is to set policy and control the budget; they have gone well beyond that, he said.
Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Board Association, said that this situation is unusual; most of the time, a personal attorney is not needed to settle disputes between superintendents and their district school boards. However, she said, there might be times when the superintendent needs to hire a lawyer if he or she and the board disagree.
George Tomyn, who served as Marion County Schools superintendent from 2012 to 2016, said he never felt the need to employ an attorney to deal with communication issues. There were disagreements, he said, but lines of direct communication should be open.
“It’s important to maintain honest communication with other parties whether you get along with them or not,” he said. “It’s important to be professional.”
School board vice chair Eric Cummings said Maier’s decision to hire Ferro has only complicated the situation; the superintendent and the school board should be able to work together for the good of the students, not any personal agenda. He said the decision to move to an appointed superintendent has created more anxiety on the board.
“We should be able to work together without the need of an attorney,” he said.
Board members Nancy Stacy and Nancy Thrower refused to comment, and board member Kelly King could not be reached via phone or email.
Ferro said he wrote the memo Maier sent to her staff to prevent further instances of school board members going over Maier’s head, but he would not offer detailed examples.
Florida Statute 1001.42 (d) states, “Control of the school or schools involved shall be vested in the district school board of the district in which the school or schools are located unless otherwise agreed by the district school boards.” That doesn’t mean board members can do whatever they please, Ferro said.
If a new superintendent is hired in 2020, he said, board members still won’t be able to control the day-to-day management of schools. Ferro said a new superintendent will face the same pressure from board members that Maier has had to deal with and will be subjected to “browbeating” until he or she succumbs to the board members’ wishes or is fired. Then another superintendent will be hired to start the process all over again.
Maier said Ferro is addressing concerns she has held for a long time about the school board members’ interference in day-to-day school system operations.
“It’s happened even before I came on as superintendent. It’s historic here,” Maier said. “It needs to stop so that my people can do their jobs.”