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Front Page » Opinion » Judges Ruling Makes School Superintendent Dictator For Life

Judges Ruling Makes School Superintendent Dictator For Life

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Written by on May 3, 2007

By Michael Lewis
Sometimes law contravenes all common sense.

That was the case last week, when Circuit Judge Ronald Friedman ruled that Miami-Dade School Board members have no authority to put any topic on the board’s agenda. That power, he ruled, belongs only to Superintendent Rudy Crew.

If that’s right, it’s wrong.

How can a superintendent who is hired by and allegedly works for a school board be the final arbiter of any action the board is allowed to take?

As it stands following the judge’s ruling, without Dr. Crew’s prior approval, the board could never, for example, chastise the superintendent, replace the superintendent or even undertake a project of which the superintendent disapproves.

That state of affairs might please those who believe Dr. Crew is doing an exceptional job and the board is an ineffectual and meddlesome collection of subpar mediocrities. It does, after all, insulate the superintendent from the board.

But if the judge is correct — an issue that might wind up in a higher court — and the superintendent always rules the roost, that power alignment also applies to a stellar board dealing with an ineffectual superintendent.

In other words, the elected board that hires a superintendent henceforth becomes a pack of powerless pawns to that superintendent whether that hired hand is competent or not.

The judge says that’s state law. But it shouldn’t be.

The issue came to court at the behest of board member Marta Perez, who was rebuffed by Dr. Crew when she tried to get four items onto the board’s monthly agenda.

The judge ruled "there is no statutory provision providing that school board members may make recommendations for board action."

Then how, Judge Friedman, is an elected board expected to oversee a district in the face of a recalcitrant superintendent? Is Dr. Crew, once hired, to be dictator for life if he so desires? How could a board vote someday to seek another leader if Dr. Crew nonetheless wanted to stay on?

The judge said a board member is free to discuss any issue even if it’s not on the board agenda. That may be true, but it doesn’t permit the board to act on the issue. Unless an item is on the agenda so that the public gets proper prior notice, the board isn’t permitted by state law to act. And the judge says Dr. Crew alone gets to decide what’s placed on the agenda.

If Judge Friedman is right that Florida law dictates this, the Legislature must vote to give board members throughout this state leeway to bring their own action requests to the table. Because while this unfortunate ruling now applies only to Miami-Dade, the law Judge Friedman sees as giving all agenda power to the superintendent is the same in all 67 school districts.

The judge’s ruling must be overturned either in a higher court or in the Legislature. It certainly won’t stand the test of time as suitable or adequate public policy.

Dr. Crew was hired as an educator. He may well be a very good one. His policies may be sterling. His ideas may be fresh and even inspiring. But he was not hired as a dictator.

The school board members, love ‘em or hate ‘em, applaud them or revile them, were elected by the people. They, in turn, decided to hire Dr. Crew. But they hired him to carry out the public policy that they alone can set. That is what they are elected to do. He should not have effective veto power over what policy or actions can even be brought to the table for a vote.

By giving Dr. Crew sole control over what actions the board may be allowed to consider, the judge has taken an incredible leap. If he is correct that the law commands him to make this ruling, the law must be changed. If not, his ruling must be reversed in a higher court.

Because while Dr. Crew may or may not be wonderful, he is most certainly mortal. He will not be superintendent forever. And some day, either in Miami-Dade or in one of Florida’s other 66 counties, there will come to office a superintendent whose performance is truly appalling. And under Judge Friedman’s ruling, that person would, like Dr. Crew, have the authority to keep the elected school board at bay forever.

Surely, no legislature in this state ever intended that school superintendents rule the elected officials who hire them. Either in court or in Tallahassee, this needs to be set right — and soon.

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