A fight over who should select Clay County’s next school superintendent — voters or the School Board — will take center stage Thursday night at the board’s meeting.
Likely to be a bitter battle, the issue pits current Superintendent Charlie Van Zant Jr. against the majority of the board.
Board Chairwoman Carol Studdard is seeking board support for a resolution to place the question of an appointed versus an elected superintendent on Nov. 4 ballot. The board meets at 7 p.m. in the Fleming Island High School Teacher Inservice Center, 2233 Village Square Parkway, Fleming Island.
Studdard along with Vice Chairwoman Janice Kerekes and board member Tina Bullock favor appointing the superintendent. Board members Lisa Graham and Johnna McKinnon support keeping the superintendent elected.
Van Zant, who was elected in 2012, opposes the resolution, which Studdard placed on the agenda.
The School Board members also are elected to their positions. If the majority of the School Board votes to put the question of an appointed versus an elected superintendent on the ballot it will be on the Nov. 4 ballot under state law.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Van Zant said by email that many people have expressed concerns about irregularities in how the process has unfolded. He referenced Kerekes’ failed 2012 attempt to get the issue on the ballot. He also said Kerekes and Studdard were involved in a recent petition drive — which failed — led by a citizens committee trying to get the issue on the November ballot.
“Now, they are making a third attempt …,” Van Zant said in the email.
Van Zant didn’t respond to a follow-up Times-Union telephone message asking him whether county residents should have an opportunity to vote on it.
This is not the first time the elected versus appointed issue has surfaced.
It’s been 22 years, Studdard said, since voters were asked whether the superintendent should be elected or appointed. Since then, the county’s population and school system have grown. Two decades ago, the district had half the schools it does now. Many Florida counties with elected superintendents are smaller and more rural than Clay, Studdard said.
In 1992, Clay voters rejected by more than 2-1 a proposal to switch to an appointed superintendent.
“My goal is for the citizens to decide what they would like. … It has nothing to do with Mr. Van Zant. It’s what is in the best interest of the school district,” Studdard said. “As we have grown and become more urban, I feel it’s time for the citizens to vote on whether they want an appointed superintendent.”
The neighboring St. Johns County School District, one of the top ranked statewide in student achievement, has an appointed superintendent as does Duval County Public Schools. To raise student achievement, Clay with about 35,000 students and a budget of roughly $300 million should have an appointed superintendent with proven qualifications as an educator as well as experience in leading what is essentially a multi-million dollar business, according to Studdard, Kerekes and Bullock.
Bullock said a citizens committee of parents, teachers and other district employees, business people and community leaders could help screen the applicants and recommend finalists. The finalists then would be interviewed by the board, which would make the selection, Bullock said.
Graham and McKinnon said the superintendent should remain elected.
“I believe it should be the power of the people and not the power of the School Board,” Graham said. “In Clay County, traditionally, they do appreciate the fact that they can elect who they want to hold office.”
There are no statistics, Graham said, to prove that one way tops the other way.
“Typically, an appointed superintendent costs you more money. Because if you are recruiting from outside of your county, outside of your state, then you have to have the salary, well over $100,000, to attract them.”
Graham said if the question is on the ballot, then it should be done in a presidential election year because typically that is when more voters turn out.
McKinnon said it’s her belief, as well as that of many constituents, that an appointed superintendent would deny residents their right to vote. An appointed superintendent concentrates power with the majority of the School Board.
“If the people are unhappy with the [appointed] superintendent, then they essentially have to un-elect the majority of the School Board to have it changed.”
More recent efforts to change the selection of Clay’s superintendent is rooted in Van Zant’s election in 2012. That August, nearly 58,000 registered non-Republican county voters were shut out of the primary pitting Van Zant against former Superintendent Ben Wortham.
Usually, all voters can cast ballots in primaries. However, that primary was closed because a write-in candidate — a Van Zant friend and supporter — filed to run against the winner in the November 2012 general election. That political tactic commonly is used if a candidate deems partisan crossover votes could hurt his/her chances.
Van Zant beat Wortham and went on to defeat the write-in candidate.
Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075