July 19, 2008

The Miami Herald: Candidate Calls for Elected Superintendent

By Kathleen Mcgrory, The Miami Herald

Jul. 19--Should the next Miami-Dade schools superintendent be elected or appointed?

A candidate for School Board wants voters to decide.

Angel Zayon, a candidate for the west Miami-Dade seat, asked the School Board Friday to include a referendum on the issue on the November ballot. He hopes the action will eventually enable county residents to choose the next schools chief.

"One of the biggest problems is that the superintendent isn't accountable to the people," Zayon said. "In a position this important, the person should be elected."

The Miami-Dade School Board is one of nearly two dozen Florida school districts that appoint its superintendent.

Under the Florida Constitution, a school board can switch from an appointed superintendent to an elected one -- or the other way around -- by holding a countywide referendum.

In order to get the question on the November ballot, as Zayon has suggested, the School Board would first need to pass a resolution.

It would have to act quickly: Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Lester Sola has said all questions must be submitted to his office by Aug. 26.


To tack a question onto an existing countywide election, such as the upcoming presidential race, would cost the district about $10,000 to $30,000 in programming costs, Sola said. A subsequent special election for superintendent could cost millions.

"This is something that needs to be done soon," Zayon said. "If we could do it before November, it would be a huge step to get out of this crisis."

Zayon is challenging Renier Diaz de la Portilla for his seat in District 5, which covers west Miami-Dade.

On Friday, Diaz de la Portilla called Zayon's action "election-time politics."

But Diaz de la Portilla, who has taken initial steps toward firing Superintendent Rudy Crew, said he would be willing to discuss the idea.

"I think it merits consideration," he said. "Anything that would allow the constituents to have a greater voice is certainly welcomed."

When contacted by The Miami Herald on Friday, a majority of board members said they, too, were interested in discussing the idea.

"It's an intriguing idea that merits looking at," said Chairman Agustin Barrera.

Statewide, a majority of superintendents are elected. But because the larger districts tend to appoint their leadership, more than half the state's students are under an appointed superintendent.

Districts that appoint their schools chiefs include Broward, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

Of late, the question of whether to elect or appoint has been bubbling up throughout the state. In 2006, both Lake and Pasco counties held referendums on the issue.


The trend has been for districts to move from elected to appointed superintendents, said Bill Montford, executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

"Our position has always been that the decision should be left up to the community," said Montford. "Who is better to make a decision about leadership than the voters? They know what their community needs."

Advocates for appointing superintendents say the process enables school boards to set higher standards for the job. It also allows the boards to interview candidates from around the country.

But opponents contend that elected superintendents are more familiar with the community and the school system. The voters can also hold elected superintendents accountable for their actions.

Board members Friday expressed a variety of viewpoints. It was unclear if any would bring Zayon's proposal to the August board meeting.

"I always think it's a good thing to let the people decide," said board member Ana Rivas Logan. "The more democratic the position, the better off it is."

But Board member Wilbert "Tee" Holloway said he was comfortable with the way the system the way it is.

"Having an elected position creates more challenges than the fair assessment that a board can give," Holloway said. "If we changed it, it would become more political."


Board member Solomon Stinson also expressed concern.

"Generally, in situations where you have an elected superintendent, the school board is almost useless," he said. "One elected official doesn't have to take direction from the other elected officials."

Miami Herald staff writer Matthew I. Pinzur contributed to this report.


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