A year ago, Okaloosa County residents were hamstrung by a school superintendent they didn't want and a governor who refused to act. We need to change that.
As YES For Okaloosa Schools advocates for tasking our School Board with hiring – and when necessary, firing – our superintendent of schools, we hear some concern about taking away voter rights and allowing the “good ol' boy” network to take over selecting our superintendent. Our nation has a long history of expanding voter rights, and we strongly support voter rights and enhancing the people’s control of the process; changing our selection method will do both.
Over a year ago, when the grand jury reports on the Okaloosa School District investigation came out, we don’t know of any local resident who thought our superintendent should stay in office one minute longer. We were glad to see that, because any public official who covers up child abuse must be removed immediately. Yet, we voters could not do anything, and the sitting governor – the only individual who could do anything – refused to act, meaning we Okaloosa voters had lost what should be our right: to hold our local superintendent accountable.
All that tells us there’s something wrong here.
Back in 1968, the new Florida constitution contained a provision to allow county school boards to call referendums to allow voters to change superintendent selection methods. Florida voters must have foreseen that as the state population exploded, the electoral method of selecting a superintendent of schools had risks. Eighty years ago, most Florida counties were lightly populated (compared to today), and electing someone who would be entrusted with ensuring children’s safety and spending the county’s largest budget wasn’t risky, because people tended to know or know about each other in a county.
But as counties grew dramatically after World War II, that familiarity waned, especially in larger counties. So the new constitution allowed counties to improve accountability in their Superintendents by making them accountable to other local elected officials as opposed to being accountable only to the Governor.
Today, Okaloosa is a much larger county than it was in the 1960s, and we have a choice: Keep our current flawed system which is tainted by PAC and special interest money and “good ol’ boy” politics or have our elected officials on the School Board enforce accountability locally. Yes, direct election of the superintendent would be gone, but with it would go the campaign contributions, political networks and the quid pro quo common in electoral politics. (Only 29% of voters turned out in 2016 to elect our last superintendent, so we sure aren’t getting the true voice of the people.)
We’d replace that with a transparent, fair system written into school district policy where five of our elected representatives would leverage their decades of education expertise to get quality input directly from the voters; impanel a voter advisory council made up of individuals from all reaches and demographics of the county; publicly interview applicants and make them available to meet the voters and constituents; and have the power to remove a failing or corrupt superintendent. The voters still decide how it goes in that system, because they elect the board and are able to dictate its actions, but the whole process is vastly more transparent and independent of the influence of political donations and “good ol' boy” politics and money.
All this talk of voter rights and “good ol' boy” politics leaves out one thing: shouldn’t we really be most concerned about our schoolchildren’s safety and security? Recent events have proven that giving our elected local School Board true enforcement will enhance that. The choice is ours.