49 candidates vie to succeed Lori White as superintendent of the Sarasota County School District

School Board members weigh contract details and choose to discuss them in more detail at a later time

Superintendent Lori White. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools
Superintendent Lori White. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

With a flurry of last-minute applications making the Aug. 12 deadline, the Sarasota County School District has 49 people seeking to take the place of Superintendent Lori White when she retires on Feb. 28, 2017.

That was the news Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe delivered during the School Board’s Aug. 16 workshop.

The goal is to have White’s successor chosen on Oct. 18 and the person’s contract approved during the Nov. 1 School Board meeting, according to the district timeline.

Bill Vogel, the consultant from the Florida School Boards Association who has been assisting the Sarasota board in its search, called the list “a very strong applicant pool.” Vogel helmed the Seminole County School District for nine years.

“I would agree 100 percent,” Lempe said.

Candidates represent 20 states, Vogel noted, and one lives in Saskatchewan, Canada. “We have 14 current superintendents.” Among those are the leaders of the Monroe County Schools in Key West; the Jamestown Public Schools in Jamestown, N.Y.; the Aromas San Juan Unified School District in Union City, Calif.; the Ruidoso Municipal Schools in Rudioso, N.M.; the Bristol Public Schools in Bristol, Conn.; the Union Township School Corp. in Valparaiso, Ind.; the Elva-Strum School District in Strum, Wis.; and the Hearne Independent School District in Hearne, Texas.

Half of the 14 superintendents are women, based on a Sarasota News Leader scan of the list.

Only one of the applicants is already a district employee, Vogel added. That person is Todd Bowden, executive director of career technical and adult education.

With the application period having ended, the focus of the School Board’s discussion this week was the salary and benefits for White’s successor. And board members found themselves making a number of suggestions for changes in a draft contract prepared by their attorney, Art Hardy.

Hardy promised on Aug. 16 to incorporate the recommendations into a revision that he will bring back to the board. The following day, district staff announced that that session will be held from 4 to 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 6.

School Board member Bridget Ziegler listens as Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe explains facets of the search process, Rachel Hackney photo
School Board member Bridget Ziegler and Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe (right) listen as School Board Attorney Art Hardy explains facets of the proposed contract, Rachel Hackney photo

In the meantime, Lempe explained this week, a 15-member committee the School Board appointed to review the applications and narrow the semi-finalists to approximately 10 was expected to hold its first meeting on Aug. 18. Altogether, the group has three meetings scheduled, Lempe noted. The final one is set for Sept. 1, if necessary, for the committee to settle on its top 10 candidates.

Vogel said that, based on the number of applicants, he expected the group would need all three meetings to complete its work.

The School Board then will winnow the field to three to five finalists who will come to Sarasota for interviews, Lempe added. The community reception for the finalists has been moved from the evening of Oct. 12 to the next night, Oct. 13, Lempe pointed out. A district staff member realized that Oct. 12 is the last day of Yom Kippur, Lempe added.

Members of the community who attend the reception will be able to provide written comments to the School Board members for their review, Vogel said.

Questions about the draft contract

Art Hardy (left) talks with consultant Bill Vogel after the discussion with the School Board. Rachel Hackney photo
Art Hardy (left) talks with consultant Bill Vogel after the discussion with the School Board. Rachel Hackney photo

As the board members delved into their discussion of the draft contract Hardy had prepared, Chair Shirley Brown immediately voiced her displeasure with a provision for an annual annuity, as well as 20 days of annual leave and five additional days for personal leave.

Board member Frank Kovach also questioned the annuity.

The rationale for that, Vogel explained, is that elected superintendents in Florida receive an annual contribution to the Florida Retirement System that reflects 3 percent of their salaries, whereas appointed superintendents are limited to 2 percent. Annuities make up the latter difference, Vogel said, adding that they “are found in most every contract for an appointed superintendent in the state that I’m aware of.”

Hardy pointed to his research showing that Manatee and Charlotte counties, for example, give their superintendents an annuity reflecting 10 percent of the salaries, while Orange County pays $12,500 and Seminole County pays $15,000 per year into an annuity.

Eric Robinson. Image from his campaign website
Eric Robinson. Image from his campaign website

Board member-elect Eric Robinson, who will be sworn in on Nov. 22, joined in the discussion at the board members’ invitation. He pointed out that appointed superintendents get higher pay, based on his research. Given that the salary range the School Board advertised for White’s replacement was $185,000 to $225,000, he questioned why a bigger number was not used for the high end of the range instead of offering the annuity. If the board opted to keep an annuity in the contract, he suggested, it be included as a bonus.

Board member Bridget Ziegler concurred.

“With very few exceptions,” Vogel told Robinson, “the appointed superintendents lead considerably larger districts than the elected superintendents.”

Vogel also noted that the advertisement included “competitive benefits,” and one of those is an annuity. “We consider that as a negotiable item.”

“I would like to see it as a negotiable item,” board member Jane Goodwin responded.

She would like to review the contracts Hardy had researched, Goodwin added, before the board made final decisions about facets of the contract for the new Sarasota superintendent.

Robinson said he felt it also would be good to look at the contracts of other top executives in counties of a size similar to Sarasota to see how they are structured. “Some of them do have the annuity within the goal-setting bonuses.”

He and board member Caroline Zucker agreed that socio-economic factors of those counties also need to be taken into consideration in reviewing the salary ranges.

Kovach noted that in his years on the board, he never had experienced a time when the board did not offer the person it wanted for the job everything the person sought in the contract. That was all the more reason, he continued, that the board needed to decide ahead of time what it will and will not be willing to offer.

School Board members Frank Kovacn and Jane Goodwin listen to the discussion. Rachel Hackney photo
School Board members Frank Kovach and Jane Goodwin listen to the discussion. Rachel Hackney photo

One of the challenges in Florida, Vogel explained, is that “superintendents’ salaries are lower than in other states.” As a result, he added, some Florida school boards have had to end up increasing the salaries they advertised.

Vogel also explained that the board members could wait a certain period of time after the new superintendent has been hired to agree with the person about extra compensation tied to performance. As part of that discussion, the board members discussed a desire to explore adopting a new evaluation system incorporating numerical ratings that could be linked more easily to performance bonuses.

How much leave?

Then Brown returned to the issue of leave, saying she felt 20 days “is a little much.” She suggested the contract provide for 10 days of annual leave that could be “banked” and 10 days of personal leave.

“I agree with what you are saying,” Kovach told her. Adding in the days the schools are closed for winter break, spring break and July Fourth — which is a minimum of 15 — and then including 20 days of leave seemed excessive, he indicated. White “never takes time off, seemingly,” he added. “I thought Lori should have taken more time off. … I think the superintendent, more than anybody, needs to have some mental down time.”

Zucker concurred with Kovach about factoring in the weeks schools are closed.

Hardy pointed to policies of other districts — from 25 days of vacation provided in Manatee County to 1.5 days a month in Seminole County.

Vogel told the board, “I would just say on this one, you just may want to remain competitive …”

In response to a question from Zucker, Hardy said state law would allow the “banking” of up to 60 days for which the superintendent could be paid when he or she left the district.