Public decides on leaders; Vote: Residents in about 100 school districts still elect superintendents, resisting a nationwide trend.


PENSACOLA, Fla. -- It was the public comment portion of the school board meeting, and Superintendent Jim May endured about 90 minutes of verbal abuse until a speaker finally praised him as the best school chief in Florida.

Smiling broadly, May rose from his chair at last week's regular meeting of the Escambia County, Fla., school board. He reached for his wallet, gave the man a bearhug and handed him a $5 bill.

Though the money did change hands, May's gesture was mostly in jest.


May is one of a dying breed. He's an elected school superintendent, of which there are about 100 left among the nation's 14,700 public school districts. The elected chiefs are concentrated in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama, where history and tradition hold that education and politics do mix.

In leaping from the auditorium stage in this Panhandle city, May was symbolically leaping over his school board to one of his constituents.

School boards, of course, want to be like boards of directors in private industry: They want to appoint and direct (and, if need be, fire) the men and women for whom they dictate policy. Elected superintendents can act independently of their boards, and May has been known to do so.

Besides, how do you launch a "national search" for a superintendent if the only possibilities are local men and women willing to line up in a partisan election?

May, 52, is a Democrat who has to work with a board elected in five single-member districts. Four of the five are Republicans.

"Education is politics, anyway," May says, and he's got that right.

The Pensacola district has one black board member, the lone Democrat. Elmer Jenkins, a fiercely competitive retired biology professor, has been defending African-American interests in Pensacola since he was elected in 1986. When a speaker challenged his views last week, Jenkins, 70, invited him to settle the matter in the alley. Nothing came of the invitation.

With 250 residents looking on, the Pensacola board made a couple of crucial decisions. It voted to submit to a vote next spring a proposal to appoint the superintendent.

If that measure passes, the board decreed, voters will decide on expanding the board to seven by adding two at-large seats.

Jenkins, of course, opposed board expansion, saying that the two additional at-large positions almost certainly would be filled by whites in a county with a white majority.

Having watched Baltimore City and Baltimore County appoint boards for nearly three decades, I found it fascinating to see the Pensacola board members squabble over territory. Their schools are "my" schools, their constituents "my" constituents.

Meanwhile, May doesn't have to worry about his board's opinion of his performance. It's public opinion that counts.

The matter is probably moot. Pensacola voters like their superintendents elected, thank you very much. Several speakers last week welcomed the idea -- in the abstract -- of tossing out a school chief they don't like. "It gives us a direct voice in what happens," said one.

The March 14 election marks the sixth time the issue has been put to referendum in 32 years. The last time they voted on an appointed superintendent, in 1994, Pensacola voters shot down the proposal by a 64 percent-36 percent margin.

May, by most accounts, is secure if he wants to run again, the verbal pasting he took last week notwithstanding. He's in the third year of a four-year term and hints he'll seek re-election.

Baltimore City SAT scores fall as more take tests

The good news is that 300 more Baltimore City high school seniors took the SAT this year than last, meaning there's more interest in college preparation.

The bad news is that the combined verbal and math scores of city students have been declining since 1996, and the decline is more substantial in the citywide schools.

The Baltimore City average combined score last year was 810, with only Poly (1,044), the School for the Arts (1,002), Western (924) and City College (906) above the average.

Southern (666), Carver (672), Southwestern (678) and Lake Clifton (683) brought up the rear.

Public school teachers hold higher qualifications

Factoid of the week: You think private school teachers are better educated and prepared than public school teachers? Wrong.

Nearly all public school teachers have completed a bachelor's degree or higher-level study, while 93.4 percent of private school teachers have completed at least an undergraduate degree, and more public school teachers (91 percent) are certified to teach the subject matter in their main field of assignment than are private school teachers (50 percent).

University student leader backs president for award

Brian Carlson, student government president at Frostburg State University, has nominated the university president, Catherine R. Gira, as Maryland educator of the century.

Gira, who started her career as an English teacher in Baltimore schools, "is compassionate and leads by example," Carlson writes.

Nominations remain open.

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