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Republican-sponsored bill could make Lee County Superintendent of Schools an elected position

There are over 90,000 students in the Lee County School District, which is governed by a school board and the superintendent they appoint. The School Board meetings are held at the Lee County Public Education Center on Colonial Boulevard.
Sabrina Salovitz
The Lee County School District, headquartered in Fort Myers, could have an elected superintendent in the future. A bill passed by the Florida House of Representatives envisions that for the district with more than 90,000 students.

A bill moving through the Florida Legislature could take away the school board’s ability to appoint the Lee County Superintendent of Schools. The bill has passed the Florida House of Representatives by a 96-to-21 vote, and is being sent to the Senate Rules Committee for consideration.

If the bill is approved by both houses of the legislature and signed by the governor, Lee County would conduct a referendum, and if a majority voted in favor, the superintendent would become a partisan, elected position.

"There has been a big call for greater accountability of school district leadership, and that's what drove me to file this local bill,” Republican Representative Jenna Persons-Mulicka of Fort Myers said. “I'm going to work as hard as I can to get this bill across the finish line.”

Persons-Mulicka is one of the bill’s co-sponsors, and she believes that making the position an elected one will keep superintendents from leaving so often.

“Folks have been overwhelmingly concerned with the turnover that we've had in superintendents, and with lack of consistent leadership due to turnover,” she said. “In the last 12 years, we have had five superintendents and the school board has just made an offer for a sixth superintendent in 12 years. Four of those superintendents served two years or less.”

Brandy Fry has lived in Lee County for 18 years and has two children in the school system. She’s very happy with the education her children have received, and while she does agree that the superintendent turnover rate has been high, she does not think this bill is the solution.

“There's been a lot going on in the last couple of years,” she said. “There's a lot of tension and whether the superintendent is elected or not, that tension is still going to be there, so I don't think that's going to make a difference.”

The Lee County Superintendent was an elected position before 1974, when a resolution was passed to make the position appointed. Persons-Mulicka says that now, nearly 50 years later, she wants to put this issue before the voters again. The district now has more than 90-thousand students.

“We've seen not only parents, but the community as a whole, just express more concerns regarding the quality of the education that our children are receiving,” she said. “I've heard those parents and community members express a desire to have a superintendent who would be directly accountable to them at the ballot box.”

Kari Lerner, chair of the Democratic Party of Lee County, believes this bill is just the latest example of the war on educators.

“I think that it is regressive, taking us back before 1974,” Lerner said. “I think it will eliminate the most qualified of prospects and I think it contributes to the race to the bottom mentality shown by the current Republican legislature.”

Lerner is concerned that this bill will make political pawns out of students and educators, and notes that Lee County would be the only middle-sized or large county to revert back to this form of choosing a superintendent.

“Politics are already in place in our school district,” Representative Persons-Mulicka said. “This is about accountability, and connectivity.”

As for the high turnover rate, Lerner says that the lack of respect and support for public education is responsible, and she thinks that Persons-Mulicka is misguided for believing her bill is the solution.

“I've spoken to teachers and parents, and what I'm getting is that they are very tired of the partisan nastiness that has been happening,” Lerner said. “This will just exacerbate that situation; it will not quell it at all.”

If the bill becomes law the voters in Lee County would have the next move. The bill calls for a referendum to be held on election day this year: November 8. Yes votes from more than 50% of those voting would make the superintendent an elective office, starting with the 2024 general election. An elected term would run four years.

“I think there's bigger things to worry about right now,” Lee County parent Brandy Fry said. “I would rather have the board appoint someone, because if you have elected, more politics are getting involved. I've talked to some other moms, and I believe they feel the same way.”