The search for the next superintendent for Collier County Public Schools concluded on May 3 with the school board’s 3-2 vote to offer the position to Dr. Leslie Ricciardelli. Voting in favor were board members Stephanie Lucarelli, Erick Carter, and board chair Kelly Lichter. Voting in opposition were Timothy Moshier and Jerry Rutherford.
The vote came after nearly five hours of comments by roughly 106 public speakers and less than an hour of board discussion. The meeting ended at 10:40 pm.
The Naples Daily News, Gulfshore Business, WGCU News, FOX-4 News, WINK News, and ABC-7 News all reported on the meeting outcome but none included school board members’ reasons for their votes or explained the decision in the context of the broader political and cultural changes in the county since the previous superintendent was hired in 2011. I believe that is important information for informed voters to know.
So I begin this post with excerpts from each board member’s comments. Next, I place the vote within the context of the electoral and political history of the school board since 2011. I close with the next step toward finalizing Ricciardelli’s appointment and point out several other items of interest on the agenda for the May 9 school board meeting.
Board Member Comments
What each board member chose to say about how they reached their decision revealed much about their priorities as well as what can be expected of each of them in the future.
The video recording of the May 3 meeting is here.
Setting the Stage
Before opening the meeting to board deliberations, Lichter told the public what the Florida Constitution “actually empowers us to do on behalf of We the People.” She said:
- Article 9 Section 4 concisely defines the role of local school boards: “The School Board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district and determine the rate of school district taxes within the limits prescribed herein.”
- Article 9 Section 5 describes the relationship between this board and the superintendent: “In each school district, there shall be a superintendent of schools …. the superintendent in any school district shall be employed by the district school board.”
“In our free society,” Lichter said, “citizens are free to exercise their constitutionally-protected first amendment rights and express their personal opinions, even the outrageous, regarding the applicants. But the ultimate power to choose a superintendent rests with this elected school board.”
[Note: Collier is one of 29 Florida counties in which the school board appoints the superintendent. In 38 counties, the superintendent is elected. See Lee County Schools will now have an elected superintendent, The News-Press, 11/15/22.
Finally, Lichter cited Article 12 Section 6 to make clear that superintendents must follow Florida law.
After a motion to extend an offer to Dr. Ricciardelli by Stephanie Lucarelli and a second by Erick Carter, Lucarelli spoke. She said she had been “pretty vocal” about wanting a national search to ensure they identified “people with bold ideas that would help us address some of the major concerns that we’ve seen over the years.”
She said she did not expect to consider an internal candidate “because the last thing I wanted was more of the same.” But she was surprised by how well Ricciardelli performed “from the day that she started and pretty much every day since then, for the last almost six months.”
Ricciardelli impressed her with “swift actions that she was bold enough to take right out of the gate,” said Lucarelli, and “immediately and easily addressed concerns” Lucarelli says she had spoken up about for some time.
“She knows our community. She knows our partners. She knows our staff,” Lucarelli said. “But most importantly, she knows our students. She knows our data. She knows how to read it and what to do with it and how to improve it. She knows data of some of our most struggling students and she has worked to help principals and teachers lift them up.”
“In short, she is the ultimate instructional leader with big ideas, who administrators, teachers, students and families will follow anywhere.”
Timothy Moshier said he had “a lot of concerns” about reports he had received by email concerning federal tax liens, code violations, and driver’s license suspensions related to Ricciardelli. He wondered why these things did not come up in her background check.
Moshier was also displeased that Ricciardelli had not yet implemented The Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program at CCPS. He said safety was his “number one priority;” “educating the kids” is second. “Just about every meeting,” he said, “I’ve been talking to Miss Ricciardelli about that and she just seems to be kicking the can down the road.”
Erick Carter said that while “Mr. Van Zant is a wonderful person … who has served our country well,” there is a “vast difference” “between leading a school district and leading a military base.”
Van Zant “is military,” Carter said. Ricciardelli “is education. She bleeds it, she breathes it.”
Also, staff turnover is a fact of life, he said, and the superintendent must be able to step in temporarily to keep things going. “I don’t feel Mr. Van Zant can step in and take over an education position,” he said. “No disrespect for him, but that’s not who he is.”
Finally, Carter said, “We need a leader that can attract the talent this district needs.” He is concerned that Van Zant would not be able to do so, while he thinks Ricciardelli can.
Jerry Rutherford said Ricciardelli’s strength is in education and that Van Zant’s strength is in leadership. “I’d like to combine the two,” he said. But he thinks leadership is what is most needed in the next superintendent.
Rutherford said that there were “certain things” that he and the board had asked Ricciardelli to do immediately “because of what circumstances are surrounding us in today’s world” that she had not addressed.
Also, he said, “There were some things that came up [in public comments] about education that are just not true.” Addressing one, he said that the doctrine of the separation of church and state arose from a “twisted” interpretation of a letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists. (My research found more on this view in Imprimis, Hillsdale College’s free speech digest, here.)
Rutherford wants to “go back to what worked” in the “founding era. He said he ran for this office “on the plank of returning our classrooms to our American heritage that is God, Family, and Country. When the Supreme Court took the Bible and prayer out of school “in 1963, the SAT scores fell to the bottom half and have never come back to the 1960 levels,” he said. “If you take God out of everything, you’re not going to have what you need.”
Kelly Lichter began with a “historical review” so that, she said, the audience would understand her perspective.
In 2011, in choosing a superintendent, the finalists were an “insider” (Michele LaBute, CCPS Chief Operational Officer) and an “outsider” (Kamela Patton, Region Administrative Director, Miami-Dade County Public Schools). “I feel like today we’re faced with the same decision,” Lichter said.
After hiring the “outsider,” “many board members, not all, abdicated their responsibilities, handed their constitutional power over to the superintendent, and rubber-stamped everything she proposed. The district slowly began its decline and shifted away from traditional academics towards a decade of controversial instructional materials, Common Core, burying our teachers under a mountain of the latest fads in public education. And what may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back was masking our children.”
“The board’s employee literally controlled every aspect of this school district,” she said, “and many, not all, board members turned a blind eye to years of control and intimidation.”
“Despite the district’s declining reading and math scores and downward spiraling of culture in general, they gave [the superintendent] multiple four year contract extensions […and] approved multiple contract amendments that gave her more perks than you can imagine. And we, the taxpayers, will continue to pay for these benefits until 2028.”
“Please know that under my watch,” she said, “this will not happen again.’
Tying Ricciardelli to the Previous Superintendent
Lichter then addressed attempts by some community members to tie Ricciardelli to the previous superintendent.
“When the top administrator rules with an iron fist, has the elected school board wrapped around her finger, is seemingly embedded in every nonprofit organization and major employer in this county,” she said, “I question whether those who have been politicizing this process would risk their own livelihood by pushing back against one of the most wrongfully empowered public employees in the county.”
It’s Not an Election
The selection of a superintendent is not an election, Lichter said. Referring to the finalists as candidates “seems to have given rise to what looks like a political campaign complete with campaign-style websites, political talking points, and partisan personal attacks.”
“Someone recently told me that if I didn’t vote for a certain applicant, my political career would be ruined,” she said. “Just to be clear: I do not have a political career. I’m not a politician. And I will never base a decision on how it benefits me personally, a particular political party, or any other special interest group.”
“I did my due diligence and I have listened to the constituents,” Lichter said. “I will be supporting the applicant that I know is the most qualified, has the ability to take board direction, and will move the district to a higher level of excellence,” she said. “It’s really that simple for me.”
Lichter then reviewed a list of board accomplishments in the five months since she took office. “My actions are in line with my constitutionally conservative principles,” she said. Among the accomplishments she mentioned were:
- Created a new mission and vision which includes the words ‘strong moral character.’
- Eliminated the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
- Moved the superintendent[’s seat at board meetings] from the dais and reestablished the board’s constitutional role.
- Conducted a staff climate survey; addressing specific areas that need significant improvement.
- Created a board-level audit committee.
- Eliminated wasteful virtual days on the academic calendar.
- Established more transparency with the board and staff.
“None of this would have been possible without the change in leadership at the board and the mutually-agreed separation with the former superintendent,” she said.
Announcing Her Decision
“I have followed through on my commitments and will continue to do everything necessary to ensure that we have the top district in the state and then the top in the nation,” Lichter said. “My vision will remain student-focused with an emphasis on raising academic standards using time-tested proven methods.
“It starts at the top with the hiring of a superintendent who truly understands his or her role and knows that they take their direction from the board. Woke indoctrination at any level and from any outside special interest group will not be tolerated.
“We will promote patriotism throughout the district, reward great teachers, reduce wasteful spending, and ensure resources are closest to the classrooms.”
“To accomplish our goals and continue the momentum and the drastic improvement of morale we already see,” she concluded, “I believe Dr. Leslie Ricciardelli is the choice for our next superintendent.”
The Electoral and Political Context
Dr. Ricciardelli’s predecessor, Dr. Kamela Patton, was unanimously chosen by the school board in 2011 after the previous superintendent was fired by a similarly unanimous vote of the board.
Patton’s decision to step down after eleven years in the post, before her previously-announced retirement date, and shortly after the 2022 school board elections, was not surprising to those familiar with the history of the Collier County school board.
What was surprising was Lichter’s vote for Ricciardelli. The lengthy comments she shared before announcing her decision were meant to explain how and why she reached the decision she did.
The following history of Collier school board elections provides additional context. Clearly, elections have consequences. The 2024 school board elections will undoubtedly again be hotly contested ones.
School Board Elections 2012 — 2022
In 2012, following a year of drama and change, the community was seemingly satisfied with the choice of superintendent. Neither of the two incumbents running for reelection at the time had any challengers.
In 2014, two of the three board members whose terms were up chose not to run for reelection. All three races drew multiple candidates, some of whom were aligned with the Tea Party, Parents Against Common Core, SWFL Citizen’s Alliance, or the Collier 912 Freedom Council. The District 3 race was decided in the general election. The winners of two of the three seats, Kelly Lichter and Erika Donalds, were closely affiliated with the county’s then-newest charter school, Mason Classical Academy.
“Swept into office by a grassroots parents movement last year, Collier School Board members Erika Donalds and Kelly Lichter [were] fighting Florida’s copycat version of the Common Core State Standards and the high-stakes testing and curriculum tied to it,” according to a 2015 article titled “In Collier’s War over Common Core is there Common Ground?” “Their message has resonated with parents who’ve questioned the major shifts in the way that math is taught … [and] teachers and students who’ve been whipsawed by a barrage of new tests tied to the Common Core standards.”
In 2016, the District 2 and 4 incumbents chose not to seek reelection, leaving open seats.
Candidates aligned with continuing school board members Lichter and Donalds and the Florida Citizens Alliance criticized board policies and programs, couched their intent to get rid of the superintendent in terms of wanting to rewrite the tool used for her annual evaluation, and said Common Core represented federal government overreach in the schools.
Opposing those candidates were Stephanie Lucarelli and Erick Carter. They were strong supporters of public education and CCPS’s Strategic Plan, appreciated the superintendent while acknowledging that more could and should be done, and wanted to work within the system and the law for change.
Lucarelli and Carter defeated the critics with 59 and 57 percent of the votes, respectively.
In 2018, both Lichter and Donalds chose not to run for reelection. Jory Westberry replaced Lichter without opposition for District 1, Jen Mitchell won the District 3 seat with 55 percent of the vote, and District 5 incumbent Roy Terry won a third term with 52 percent of the vote.
In 2020, Lucarelli and Carter won second terms with no opposition.
In 2022, school board elections were again hotly contested, and many felt once again that the future direction of CCPS was at stake. Public education had come to the forefront in politics not just in Collier County, but statewide, with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ education agenda and in many places across the country.
In what are supposed to be nonpartisan school board elections, the Collier County Republican Party endorsed a slate of candidates they said would “protect parental rights,” and campaigns were expensive, highly partisan, ugly, and mean-spirited.
All three races were decided by runoffs in the general election. The three candidates endorsed by the Collier GOP won: Rutherford with 65 percent of the vote, Lichter with 58 percent of the vote, and Moshier with 60 percent of the vote.
For more, see my post, Florida and Collier County Election Results, 11/20/22.
This Tuesday, May 9, the board will discuss the terms of a contract for Dr. Ricciardelli and the items to be included in it. The superintendent’s contract is agenda item E2, and public comments will be heard before the board discussion. (Meeting agenda here.)
The meeting will begin at 4:30 pm at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Administrative Center, 5775 Osceola Trail, Naples, and will be live-streamed at www.collierschools.com/educationlive and on the District’s Education Channel (Cable Channel 99).
Also on the May 9 Agenda
Agenda Item F7 – Discussion of Board Priority – Academics:
At its Feb. 13, 2023, meeting, the board approved five priorities and requested staff bring forward one priority each month for discussion. The first priority for discussion is “Academics.” It is focused on the implementation of a knowledge-based curriculum aligned with state standards, expanding and enhancing post-secondary options, and cultivating civic literacy and critical thinking.
Agenda Item F8 – The Guardian Program:
As mentioned in his reasons for voting against Ricciardelli, School Board Vice-Chair Tim Moshier wants the District to implement a Guardian Program pursuant to the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program. At his request, the board will discuss.
Other items of significance on the agenda are: