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Lee voters to decide if the school superintendent should be elected

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Should the leader of the Lee County School District be elected by the voters? That's the question in a referendum on this November's ballot.

The school district superintendent in Lee County has been an appointed position since 1974. In the November general election, voters will get to decide whether to make it an elected position.

Governor Ron DeSantis approved House Bill 497 on May 3, allowing the referendum to be on the ballot. It is titled “Repealing Resolution Providing for an Appointed, Rather than an Elected, Superintendent of Schools.”

“We have a very good system here. And an elected superintendent, it's kind of an antiquated process,” Bobbie D’Alessandro, a former Lee school superintendent said. “Just to handle the safety and security, as you can well imagine, is a huge job, and then to think of everything they need to do with the curriculum and instruction, it’s just a huge job.”

D’Alessandro was the superintendent from 1994 to 1997 and then became the school superintendent of Cambridge County in Mass. Massachusetts from 1997 to 2006. She then coached and trained superintendents for the National Institute for School Leaders.

“We don't really see the need to move to an elected one. There are elected superintendents here in Florida, and they're usually in the much smaller districts,” Kevin Daly, president of the Teacher’s Association of Lee County, said.

In Lee County, there are 119 schools and 97,360 students enrolled, with a budget of $1.933 billion for the 2021-2022 school year, according to the school district website.

“I think the idea of the appointed superintendent also goes to the fact that kind of accountability comes sooner than if we have an elected superintendent," Daly said. "If any [appointed] superintendent turns out to not know what they're doing or makes mistakes, or is immoral, the board can replace them whenever they want. As far as I know, the citizens of Lee County did not rise up and demand this from their elected officials. There was no movement, there was no petition, there was no protest about this.”

Some Lee County residents worry this will make the position political.

"The sensational aspects of politics and the focus indoctrination required will erode the desire for other more important subjects," Dale Moses of Lehigh Acres said. “Don't ruin their chances for an education with politics.”

D’Alessandro agrees with these concerns and wants the superintendent position to remain nonpartisan.

“I say it was one of the best and worst jobs I've ever had because I love the kids, but it's really a lot of pressure as a superintendent, and if you'd been affiliated with a political party? Oh my gosh, I think it would just be a travesty in my view,” D’Alessandro said.

Representative Jenna Persons–Mulicka of Fort Myers sponsored this bill in the legislature last winter. She wants the decision to be in the hands of voters.

She’s been using social media to spread the message “It is time for a superintendent of schools that is directly accountable to the good folks of Lee County!" she tweeted on May 4. "We trust our voters to select the most qualified person!”

Dr. Beth Barfield is the elected superintendent of Glades County for the past two years.

“I have spoken at several superintendent conferences and one of the things that I've talked about a lot is that, appointed, elected, it doesn't matter," Barfield said. "The number one thing that's important is that we continue to do what's best for the kids."

She was a former principal in Lee County by appointment, and says that politics still play a role in the position.

“You also have the professional aspect," Barfield said. "I have a doctorate degree in organizational leadership. I am a certified superintendent. There's 1,987 female superintendents in the United States, and I'm blessed to be one of them, but I've worked very hard to get where I am."

Sample ballots for the election on November 8 can be viewed on the lee vote website after entering in your voter information. If the referendum receives the majority vote, this will go into effect with the election in November, 2024.

“I believe if you want any continuity, then the position needs to be an appointed position,” Ken Lanphear of North Fort Myers said. “Anybody in that position knows that they will never please everybody, every time, and they need to know that they do not have to glad hand everybody. They need to make the decisions based on what is best for the students in their system."

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. This student can be reached at hklemery9681@eagle.fgcu.edu