Lee County voters could soon vote or whether to start electing a school Superintendent.
The House on Thursday approved a local bill (HB 497) that would put the issue to a countywide referendum. But the matter sparked controversy, with many questioning the need for a switch when most superintendents nationwide are hired by school boards.
Rep. Jenna Persons-Mulicka, a Fort Myers Republican, said it’s important to give voters a voice on both whether to elect and ultimately who should lead the schools.
“We know that our constituents and Lee County are smart enough to make a choice between an unqualified candidate and a qualified candidate,” she said. “Because when they go to that ballot box, they know their home, they know their children, and when they vote, they’re putting their children first.”
The Lee County Legislative Delegation in August unanimously approved the local bill. That reason alone, Persons-Mulicka argued, should prompt the rest of the Legislature to allow the measure to move forward.
But critics had concerns about a professional leader being selected through a political process.
“It’s a very important job,” said Rep. Joy Goff-Marcil, a Maitland Democrat. “You wouldn’t have a CEO be an elected position in the company that you’re invested in. And this is an investment in our children.”
Rep. Tracie Davis, a Jacksonville Democrat, noted that in her home district of Duval, the local School Board conducted a broad search for a Superintendent and hired a candidate from outside the county. Since Superintendent Diana Greene’s hire, the district has performed better in state assessments.
“We are not an ‘A’ school district. We were nowhere near it before our Superintendent was appointed,” Davis said. “We are points away from being an ‘A.’”
She questioned if such advances could be achieved if voters elected someone running within the county on a political message.
The Lee County School District employs more than 12,000 people, according to its official website.
Notably, the district has also been at odds frequently in the past year with state direction, and was among the school districts to implement a student mask mandate earlier this year despite Gov. Ron DeSantis announcing a prohibition on such mandates in the county. Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican, at one point called for DeSantis to remove current Superintendent Ken Savage over the policy, though the district reversed course when an appeals court affirmed the Governor had the authority regarding the policy.
Roach, though, said concerns raised about electing a qualified candidate were misplaced. He noted Lee County voters never elected a Sheriff with no law enforcement background and likely would not vote for a school Superintendent with no history in education.
“The tone and tenor of the debate seems to say that it’s dangerous for the voters of Lee County because they are not capable of effectively evaluating a candidate and making an informed choice,” he said. “I find that just insulting.”
The bill now heads to the Senate. If the legislation passes, a referendum will go before voters in November. If Lee County voters support the change, the first election for Lee County Superintendent since 1974 will take place in the 2024 election cycle.