Time for Leon County to switch to an appointed school superintendent

Bill Montford spoiled Leon County.

For his ten years as Leon County Superintendent of Schools, from his election in 1996 to his departure from office in 2006 to take the job of CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, Montford showed us just how effective an elected superintendent could be.  His down-home raised-in-Blountstown charm could reach any resident of the county, no matter their background.  And his keen intellect allowed him to go toe-to-toe with any academic or professional hotshot around.

Professionally, Montford grew up in Leon County.  He earned his bachelor’s degree at FSU in 1969, taught math here (starting at Belle Vue Middle School) and eventually rose to be Principal at Godby High School.  He served a few terms on the Leon County Commission in the 1980’s, and of course now he is the State Senator representing Leon County and the rest of the sprawling North Florida district.

But as an effective elected superintendent of schools, Montford was an anomaly.  I’ve lived in Tallahassee since 1986, but I don’t remember who ran the county’s schools before Montford.  I remember one name – Richard Merrick.  And I don’t remember that name fondly.  If you’ve been in Leon County long enough, perhaps you remember others.  And I’ve looked – I can’t find a listing of Leon County’s school superintendents anywhere.  Not even on the school district’s web site, which lists only one – the present superintendent, Jackie Pons.

What most Leon County residents know about Pons is that under his leadership, the school district is being investigated by the FBI for questionable practices involving school construction contracts.  I remember better days, when Pons was doing a good job as Principal while my daughters worked their way through Deerlake Middle School.  At Deerlake, doing a good job as Principal mostly involved staying out of the way of a talented teacher corps drawn to Deerlake by the relatively light duty of working with the affluent children who largely populated the school.  It was a job that well suited Pons, who is a teacher certified in physical education, a former basketball coach and a fine radio color commentator for FSU men’s basketball broadcasts.

But even without the FBI investigation, he has never been a Montford.  Not even close.

And this is something to keep in mind as Leon County considers – perhaps only fleetingly – switching to an appointed superintendent of schools.   Only a few years ago, a financial scandal drove Monroe County to switch from an elected superintendent to an appointed one.  So far, it doesn’t appear as if Leon County’s scandal will result in the same outcome.

Bill Montford may be a big reason why the idea of switching to an appointed superintendent hasn’t seemed to gain any momentum.  Leon County voters remember the good old Montford days, and most are probably convinced that there is always a Montford somewhere in the county, ready to drive the school district forward.

But there isn’t.  Running a 30,000-student school district well is a bear of a job, requiring excellent political skills, a talented mind, an ocean-sized reservoir of patience, a deep well of experience in public education and tremendous integrity.  Pons falls short on that list, and Pons’ most likely successor – Scott Maddox – lacks the experience in the education system (no, Scott, having kids doesn’t qualify you).  We will not find someone who has Montford-level qualifications unless we are willing to cast our net beyond the county’s boundaries.  Way beyond.

Leon County should be grateful for the good fortune of having Bill Montford elected as superintendent for ten years.  And the county should also switch to appointing its superintendents.

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