Lee County lawmakers consider making School Superintendent an elected position

Florida Politics | By Jacob Ogles | August 17, 2021

The last time Lee County voters weighed in on the issue was 1974.

Should the superintendent of schools be accountable to a school board or the voters? That question could soon land in front of Lee County voters for the first time in 48 years.

Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, a Fort Myers Republican, has sponsored a local bill that would place the question on the 2022 countywide ballot. If the bill is passed by the Legislature and signed into law, voters would decide if the superintendent remains an at-will employee of the Lee County School Board, or reverts to a countywide elected constitutional officer. Should voters appove the referendum, a superintendent would be elected in 2024.

“One of the biggest things I’ve taken away from this pandemic is the need to trust hardworking Floridians to make the decisions that affect their lives, their businesses, their families and especially their children,” Persons-Mulicka said. “What this local bill does is it gives those parents and voters in Lee County the choice.”

Florida law by default establishes the school superintendent as an elected office, but allows for appointed superintendents who operate more like city or county managers responsible to an elected body.

Most of Florida’s 67 superintendents remain elected, but most of the larger districts in Florida have moved to appointing instead, so most students attend school in districts with appointed leaders.

Counties that appoint in addition to Lee include Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Miami-Dade, Duval, Escambia, Flagler, Hernando, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lake, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Monroe, Okeechobee, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Polk, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Sarasota, Seminole and Volusia.

Lee, the ninth largest school district in Florida, would be the largest district in Florida to have an elected superintendent if voters chose to make the switch.

That’s what Persons-Mulicka would like to see. After hearing a litany of complaints about school leadership this year, she said it’s time for a superintendent directed by the people.

“Having an elected superintendent will lead to more accountability, rather than being dependent on the School Board that chooses and hires,” she said. “It can lead to better checks and balances and separation of powers. It can be incredibly important in helping direct the policies and vision of the county.

“And the superintendent should not only be held accountable to voters, but when it’s an elected position that person is also forced to be out in the community listening to folks and taking their input.”

Of note, Lee County Superintendent Greg Adkins retired in April this year. Interim Superintendent Kenneth Savage leads the district now.

Persons-Mulicka said her bill isn’t about the person holding the job now, but the system overall. If anything, it’s simply good timing to have a vote on the superintendent at a time when there isn’t someone permanently holding the job, she argues.

Lee County Delegation Chair Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican, supports the bill and expects it to pass unanimously.

“That would take power away from the School Board,” said Roach, who has butted heads with the district on issues like transgender bathroom access. Most of the county’s lawmaker delegation signed a letter criticizing that policy during this year’s Legislative Session.

Persons-Mulicka stressed it’s not ultimately up to lawmakers whether the superintendent should be elected. Her bill only puts the matter on the ballot. The last time voters weighed in on the issue was in 1974, when around 38,000 voters cast a ballot on the question. There are roughly 90,000 students in the school district today, and more than 770,000 people living in the county.

The delegation meets at Florida SouthWestern College Wednesday at 9 a.m. and expects to take up the bill early.

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