My Vero: School Board candidates all favor curbs on Rendell

In case you haven’t noticed all the campaign signs: We’ve got a lot of folks running for the School Board.

Nine candidates, in fact, are vying for three seats on the five-member board, and none of them is an incumbent.

That’s a good thing – because the current board, as a group, hasn’t proved up to doing the job it was elected to do in the way that best serves our community.

Time and again, this board has proven itself too weak to challenge the superintendent, Mark Rendell. Too weak to demand the transparency, accessibility and accountability that those of us who pay his salary deserve from him. Too weak to stop him from putting our school district in bad situations.

This board, collectively, has proven itself to be too weak to be his boss.

“The No. 1 question I’m getting is: What are you going to do about the superintendent?” said Randy Heimler, one of three candidates seeking the District 4 seat being vacated by Charles Searcy, who, along with District 3 board member Laura Zorc, often has tried to do the right thing only to be outnumbered by board members who don’t seem to understand the concept of oversight.

“The superintendent is on very shaky ground with all the scandals going on and the disappointing performance of the district,” he added. “There are a lot of problems here, and the voters are aware of it. That might have something to do with why three incumbents decided to walk away.

“Something is wrong, maybe very wrong, and I pin a lot of it on the superintendent.”

Heimler isn’t alone.

All of the candidates I interviewed last week cited the School Board’s willingness to cede its power to the superintendent and approve his sometimes-wrongheaded recommendations – many used the term “rubber stamp” – without questioning Rendell’s reasoning.

The board’s failure to properly oversee and closely monitor the superintendent has resulted in the mishandling of a headline-grabbing cheating scandal, embarrassing defeats in court, mismanaging the employees’ health-care insurance fund, poor morale that prompted the departures of too many good teachers and administrators, a thinly veiled decline in the academic performance of our schools, a student code of conduct so unnecessarily convoluted and complex that it needed to be shelved, and, more recently, the suspicious squirreling away of $2.3 million in accounts where it wasn’t needed.

“The board works for the taxpayers and is supposed to direct the superintendent and provide the checks and balances,” said Merchon Green, one of four candidates running for the District 2 seat being vacated by Dale Simchick. “Right now, we don’t have that functionality.

“We have a superintendent-led district, and it’s not working.”

Or as Ruben Bermudez, another District 2 candidate, put it: “The board members have to work with him, but they should be telling him what to do, not the other way around. Instead, the superintendent says, ‘Jump,’ and they jump.”

District 4 candidate Stacey Klim said it was bad enough this board has “created a system where the superintendent is in charge of everything,” but she warned that some on the board “want to keep it that way.”

And she’s right.

How else do you explain the board’s recent decision to extend Rendell’s contract, despite grading his job performance at an unspectacular 3.44 of a possible 5.0?

“I wonder how many teachers would’ve had their annual contracts renewed with a grade like that,” said Eugene Wolff, one of two candidates for the District 1 seat currently occupied by board chairman Shawn Frost, who decided to not seek re-election.

Certainly, there’s no good explanation for District 5 School Board member Tiffany Justice, who curiously remains Rendell’s staunchest supporter, giving him a 4.5 – his highest mark and .25 above the grade he gave himself – and saying the criticism of her favorite superintendent was undeserved.

Unfortunately, she’s not one of those stepping down.

There is reason for hope, however, and possibly change.

Based on what they’ve said, this crop of candidates seems to endorse a different power structure, one in which the board would embrace a strong, more authoritative role and take a harder look at Rendell’s recommendations and actions.

Both District 4 candidate Teri Barenborg and District 1 hopeful Mara Schiff were among those who said they embraced the concept of the School Board functioning as a board of directors overseeing a chief executive officer.

“The board should be responsible for the well-being of the organization, determine policy, oversee the CEO and set the route the ship is sailing,” Schiff said. “The superintendent should run the day-to-day operations of the district in accordance with the board’s policy and directions.”

Said Barenborg: “The board is accountable to the public, and the superintendent is accountable to the board, or should be.”

Among those charged with holding both the board and superintendent accountable are those of us in the local news media, but Rendell has made our jobs tougher, often with the backing of some on the board.

Unlike our dealings with the other local government entities, including law enforcement, we can’t merely ask the school district for a copy of a school district document or record that, by law, is supposed to be available to the public.

We’re told to formally submit a Freedom of Information Act request in writing and then are required to pay for the paperwork we want.

The same goes for any perceived outsider seeking such information – parents, teachers, union leaders – not just media types.

As for talking to Rendell . . . well, I’ve tried, even pitching to him through his executive assistant a non-controversial story idea in an attempt to build the kind of working relationship I’ve long enjoyed with our county administrator and sheriff, Vero Beach city manager and police chief, state attorney and public defender.

He never called back. He clearly thought he didn’t need to – because this School Board lets him get away with hiding from the media and public accountability.

Hopefully that will change, though, after the election: All of the candidates interviewed said they will urge the superintendent to be more cooperative with the local news media.

“I would encourage transparency in every way,” Bermudez said. “We should all be accessible and answer questions for the media, and not hide behind the meetings. Over the years, I’ve found that if someone is dodging you, there’s usually a reason for it.”

The candidates said they understood not everyone has the time or ability to attend School Board meetings, and that many residents rely on their local newspaper to stay informed on the governmental goings-on in their community.

They also know that there are school-related issues that need further explanation, sometimes from the superintendent, and they said he should make himself more accessible to reporters.

“I get that, as superintendent, he’s a very busy man,” Schiff said. “If he had to answer every call from the media or a member of the public, he couldn’t get his work done. But there’s no reason his assistant or public information person couldn’t take your name and ask, ‘Could he call you back at 5?’

“There’s a big difference between doing that and not talking to the news media or the union or a parent,” she added. “But that’s part of the culture that has evolved in this district. There’s a lack of connection, of transparency, of a willingness to engage.”

It’s as if Rendell and his backers see the local news media – some of us, anyway – as the enemy of the district and blame reporters for exposing their mistakes.

District 2 candidate Devon Dupuis said that thinking needs to change.

“I believe that when you are representing the people of a community, you have to be willing to communicate with them,” she said. “And I don’t mean just talking to the media and providing information to the public, but also getting input from the community.

“In business, that kind of communication is part of customer service,” she added. “Maybe, because they’re running our schools and not a business, they don’t feel a need to do it.”

In many ways, though, operating our public-school system is a business – one that services 18,000 students and operates under a $290 million annual budget.

The School Board is, in essence, a board of directors, and the superintendent is the CEO. The board members work for us. He works for them.

And as Green said: “If you want your job, you do what’s required.”

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