Lawmakers push for return to elected superintendent for Hernando schools

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | March 21, 2023

If approved, Hernando voters would face a 2024 referendum to decide the superintendent’s fate.

Hernando County voters might get to decide next year whether they want an elected superintendent to lead their public schools.

State Rep. Jeff Holcomb, R-Spring Hill, on Tuesday convinced a majority of members on the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee to advance his local bill (HB 773), which would require the school district to hold a referendum on the matter during the 2024 primary.

If approved, voters would begin choosing the superintendent in 2028. That would be the first time in 40 years that the public rather than the five-member school board would select the district’s chief executive.

“I do believe it’s absolutely time for a change in Hernando County,” said Holcomb, a former county commissioner who has sparred with the school board in past years.

To illustrate the need, he offered as examples the board’s failure to redraw member districts after the 2020 census, and the preponderance of C and D state grades for a majority of district schools.

“It’s time for (voters) to make a choice in who leads the district,” he contended.

One person representing the district signaled opposition to the bill, but did not speak at the subcommittee hearing. Board vice chairperson Susan Duval said in an interview that the board has not taken a stance on the measure, but could discuss it at an upcoming meeting.

Duval said she did not think the change is a good idea.

Susan Duval [Times (2012)]

partisan battling already. “If your interest is in public education, you don’t want politics in it.”

That was Rep. Angie Nixon’s view as she opposed the bill. The Jacksonville Democrat noted that voters decided to transition to an appointed superintendent decades ago, and a similar bill to change it was defeated in 2021.

She questioned the need to revisit the issue now. But the situation has changed from two years ago.

The House member representing Hernando at that time was Blaise Ingoglia, who spoke publicly about his disdain for Hernando superintendent John Stratton over allowing cultural issues to be taught in the schools. Board members pressed Wilton Simpson, then the Senate president who also represented Hernando, to kill the bill, which he did.

This year, Ingoglia is the area’s senator.

“He’s not going to stop it,” Duval said.

Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, called the idea “excellent,” saying it mirrored a successful effort in Lee County. About 62% of Lee voters agreed in 2022 with a House-called referendum on its superintendent position, meaning they will pick their next superintendent with the 2024 election.

“I think there are a tremendous amount benefits” to such a move, Roach said.

Duval wasn’t so sure. She said an elected superintendent does not have to heed the direction of the board, while an appointed one can be replaced if a board majority is dissatisfied with his or her performance — as has happened in Hernando as recently as 2018.

“It’s not just about playing favorites,” she said.

Some outside observers are watching to see where the Hernando situation lands, with concerns that lawmakers might try the move in other counties, too. It’s an issue that resonates either way, though.

Escambia County voters decided to switch to an appointed superintendent in 2018, and they’re already discussing whether to reverse that vote.

The Hernando local bill has one more committee stop before going to the full House. It would then be sent to the Senate for consideration.

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