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Escambia County School Board rejects elected superintendent referendum

Escambia County Public Schools

The Escambia County School Board on Tuesday voted down a resolution that would have given voters a chance to switch back to an elected superintendent. The motion failed on a 2-3 vote, for now, ending the debate over how the district’s top executive is selected.

Patty Hightower was one of the three board members who voted in support of keeping an appointed superintendent. Earlier today, she said she was relieved to have the vote behind them.

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“I was very happy that the majority of the board felt that we needed to have a little more time in this process, in this governance structure, to actually see whether it is working or not,” she stated.

Hightower, the longest serving member of the board who was first elected in 2004, acknowledged that she’s long advocated for an appointed superintendent and supported the closely contested, but successful 2018 referendum to make the switch. Five previous votes on the issue since 1967 failed.

Representing District 4, Hightower pointed out that Dr. Tim Smith, the district’s first appointed superintendent, has only been on the job for a little more than two years. And despite COVID and criticisms regarding his performance, he has had some successes.

RELATED: Pressure builds on Escambia School Superintendent to step down

“And in reality, if you look at it, we have fewer D and F schools,” she began. “We have moved from 53rd place in the state to 48th place. And, I think because of Warrington Middle and some of the other things that have been going on in the district, the successes have gotten lost.”

One those other things has been the school board’s long, contentious process of examining and vetting challenged books and instructional material. Frustrated that Smith didn’t use his powers to cut the debate and unilaterally make the decision on the books, some citizens began to push for a return to an elected superintendent.

“Let’s correct the mistake and put the power back into the hands of the people,” said resident Mickey Price.

RELATED: No books banned at Monday's Escambia School Board meeting

“We’re telling you we want to go back to a vote, so let’s make it happen,” added Larry Downs, Jr. “A superintendent is not beholden to the citizens, he’s beholden to three of y’all, three of the board members.”

“I met people I didn’t even know a couple of months ago and they all said, ‘Hey, we want to have that vote again,’” added District 1 Board Member Kevin Adams, who presented the resolution for elected superintendent to the board. “And, I promised them during my campaign that I would fulfill that, OK, because I’m not scared of letting the voters decide an issue.”

On the flip side, Pensacola Mayor D.C. Reeves, who led the 2018 campaign in support of an appointed superintendent, doubled down on his position to keep the status quo.

School Board Chairman Paul Fetsko said it doesn’t matter how a superintendent is chosen, but rather what he does in the position. However, he joined Adams in voting in favor of holding a referendum, noting that people he met during his recent campaign also asked about returning to an elected superintendent.

By the time Fetsko weighed in, it was evident that the vote would fail, as Hightower and fellow board members David Williams and Bill Slayton had already spoken against the referendum.

RELATED: School Board Preparing For Escambia’s First Appointed Superintendent

In his remarks, Slayton recalled the “horrors” of working under an elected superintendent, which could change every four years. Ultimately, he believes it’s too soon to make a change.

“It takes two or three years to get your system established and that's what I believe has been the error in this particular part,” he stated. “We have not given the opportunity to get the system established.”

Hightower agreed. And, with the elected superintendent issue settled for now, she said she’s excited to see what comes out of the five-year strategic plan now being developed by Superintendent Smith.

“You know, a lot of times, we put a plan together and we just put it back on the shelf and say, ‘Yea,’ and we’ll evaluate it yearly,” she said. “But, I think this time, everybody in the community will have a piece in making that strategic plan successful.”

Residents are invited to learn more and offer their comments at a series of town halls to be held in each district, starting next week. The first meeting will be held Monday, March 27, 6-8 p.m. at Pensacola High School (Auditorium), which is located in District 3.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.