Newsmakers


One on One: Collier County School Board Member Erika Donalds

“There was this impression … that I was against the school district. That isn’t the case.”

 

Erika Donalds has become one of the more polarizing political figures in Southwest Florida, despite holding only a nonpartisan seat on the board of Collier County Public Schools. She came in as part of a mini wave of concerned parents in 2014, joining the board at a time when no school superintendent in a decade had lasted more than a single contract. Immediately, she and fellow board member Kelly Lichter formed what from the outside can seem like a purposefully antagonistic minority whose cause became the dividing line in the 2016 school district race. (Her opponents won two seats in that race to maintain the majority.) Recently, she was named by Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran to the state’s Constitution Revision Commission, a body that meets every 20 years to make proposals to put forward to voters, next in 2018. All of this is happening at the same time her husband, Byron, is in his first year as a state representative.

On being in the minority on the school board

“When I ran, I thought I would be able to ask questions, to raise my concerns. I thought (I) would at least be able to have discussions on issues that I think are important. But this past meeting (in March) was the first time I’ve actually had something on the agenda. There was this impression, whether from the media or just in the community, that I was against the school district. That isn’t the case. I just want to look at issues, to drill down to the data. So many things are politicized. But there’s not a side to data.”

On her biggest concerns for the district

“I really want to look at the tool we use for the superintendent evaluation. It needs to be results-based and right now it’s mostly task-based. Like one of the things on there is to build and maintain a website. That’s how we are evaluating the position. Teacher retention is another big issue. We know that our Title I schools are three times more likely to have new teachers. That’s where we need our best teachers. But those schools have as much as 20 percent turnover every year, compared to 6.5 percent across the district.”

On governance vs. management

“It’s not my job to come up with solutions; that’s the superintendent’s job. The board’s job is to identify issues that need to be addressed and to provide guidance on the direction.”

On being appointed to the Constitution Revision Committee

“I honestly didn’t know much about the process at first. But someone encouraged me to apply. I never talked to (Speaker Corcoran) about it. I was really surprised when I found out. I didn’t even know it was happening until I got a call from someone in his office putting together the press release. I got no instructions on what I was supposed to do. I’m following no agenda at this point. I’m just listening to people who have concerns. I’ve made a spreadsheet with all the issues people bring forward. I’ve got my folders set up to collect all the information.”

On the first meeting of the CRC in Orlando

“We had a room to seat 200 people, but more than 400 people showed up. We had to put them into an overflow room, but then that room was too full. People were booing us and someone said to me that it was terrible. I said, ‘Oh, this is nothing. I’m on the school board.’”

On the big issues the CRC had heard about by early April

“One of the most passionate things is restoration of rights (for convicted nonviolent felons). People on both sides of that issue have a lot to say. There are a lot of discussions about creating a statutory process for citizens to put issues forward rather than constitutionally.”

On her guiding principles for change

“Our constitution can be a bit unwieldy. As someone who values our constitution, I want it to be effective, efficient and relatable. We’ve put so much stuff in the constitution that really probably shouldn’t be in there. So my primary thinking is that it is better to propose nothing than to put forth something unnecessary. So our starting point should be doing nothing. And then only if something is highly justified should we put it forward to the voters.”