Appointed Superintendent In Escambia Gets Another Look

Aug 17, 2015

On at least five occasions dating back to 1967, voters in Escambia County have rejected the idea of switching from an elected school superintendent to an appointed one. But, there’s now a renewed discussion about the topic in the run up to the 2016 General Election.

“I am just a concerned citizen with a tremendous passion for education,” said Pensacola businessman Robert de Varona, who’s behind the latest push to make the change to an appointed superintendent in the Escambia County School District.

“The situation of education in the US is critical and we’re falling behind other countries, which in the US, Florida is toward the bottom regarding education and Escambia is in the bottom of Florida, so we need to do something.”

De Varona says starting locally is the best approach for improving education in the district, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the state. He believes appointing the superintendent is the best way to go, although he says his efforts are not a referendum on current Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, who’s now in his second term and has pre-filed for a third.

“We have had some good and bad superintendents,” de Varona said. ‘I see that Malcom is doing a great job, Malcolm Thomas. But, what is going to be after Malcolm and beyond.”

Moving forward, de Varona draws a correlation to the private sector, whereby the stockholders elect the board and then the board appoints and hires the chief executive office. Thus, he believes the school board should be given the responsibility of hiring and firing the district’s top executive.

The League of Women Voters of the Pensacola Bay Area gave de Varona a forum for making his case in favor of an appointed superintendent at their general meeting Saturday, Aug. 15, at the Tryon Branch Library. Former

“The superintendent’s job is a very high level executive position, handling millions of dollars and many people of all levels,” said Paula Montgomery, education chair for the league.

Montgomery says she would support any effort – local or state – to switch to an appointed superintendent of schools, noting some very important benefits.

“If you have an elected superintendent, whose only qualification is that he has to live in the county, then you may get a good one,” Montgomery said, acknowledging there’s no guarantee.  “But, if the school board could look over the field and find out who’s available and what their credentials are in a much wider range than the county, we’d very likely to end up with the best person for the job.”

To date, 26 of Florida’s 67 counties already have an appointed superintendent. But, Florida is currently one of only three states nationwide, including Alabama and Mississippi, which still permit election of local superintendents.

Mississippi has put the issue on its legislative agenda for next year to possibly switch over to all superintendents being appointed.

With no legislation in the works in Florida and none currently being pursued by the league, the only way to make the change is by local referendum. 

“Our records indicate it’s been on the ballot 5 times,” said Escambia Supervisor of Elections David Stafford, noting that the first – and closest - vote on the issue was in 1967.

“It lost by one vote. 9,651 No and 9,650 Yes. Then it was again on the ballot 3 years later in 1970, ’76, ’88 and the last time was ’94, and it failed a little over 19,000 to just under 11,000.”

Election Results:

November 3, 1970:  YES – 10,974     NO – 23,711

July 2, 1976:  YES – 8,320     NO – 9,783

March 8, 1988:  YES – 15,850     NO – 32,859

October 4, 1994:  YES – 10,709     NO – 19,396

The last serious discussion of the issue was in 2000, but it failed to make it to the ballot.

If there’s to be another referendum in the coming year, the matter will have to go through Escambia County School Board chairwoman Patty Hightower.

“I’ve had a couple of people talk to me and I’ve indicated that should we get some people coming to us wanting us to put it on the ballot, I’d be glad to put it in front of my board for discussion,” Hightower said.

But, Hightower says based on previous outcomes, bringing it up yet again might be premature.

“I think what’s happened in the past is there’s not ever been a coherent message on what’s going to improve, how’s this going to impact my student in the classroom,” said Hightower. “And, I think that’s a question our community needs to answer, you know, ‘what is going to be the reason to change?’”

Hightower has worked in both systems, and while she has voted in the past in favor of an appointed superintendent, she says there are pros and cons to both. Before any change is realistic, she says it’ll take a real grassroots movement.

Leading that effort this time is businessman Robert de Varona. He knows there’s a lot of work to be done to get the public’s support. For him, it’s a matter of economic development.

“You know we can get companies here to the area, but if we don’t have the qualified workers, they’re going to hire people from other places,” de Varona said “And, our poverty is horrendous here. So, to solve all these things we have to approach it seriously and drastically.”

At this point, de Varona says no timetable has been set for getting the issue on the ballot. But, if it’s to get on the General Election ballot in 2016, Elections Supervisor David Stafford says it’ll have to be finalized by late August or early September or next year.