FORT WALTON BEACH — As an elected superintendent of schools, Mary Beth Jackson was accountable to no one, and let politics get in the way of making decisions that would have protected the students of Okaloosa County.

That was the message of Pat Ryan, the spokesman for Yes for Okaloosa Schools, who on Thursday held a press conference to call for a referendum to make the superintendent’s job an appointed one.

Jackson was bound by Florida law to notify the state’s Department of Education of findings that Kenwood Elementary Pre-K D teacher Marlynn Stillions had physically harmed an autistic child in her care, Ryan said, without mentioning Jackson by name.

“Only the former superintendent can say what was on her mind when she failed to report the allegations,” Ryan said. “It is indisputable that this inaction occurred 30 days before the last superintendent of schools election. It is obvious to even the most casual observer that politics played a part in the failure to follow the law.”

Stillions is now serving seven years in prison for abusing 4-year-old Noah Perillo, and Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Jackson Jan. 11, in part for how she handled a report filed by a School District investigator regarding Stillions.

Ryan said he and other concerned Okaloosa County residents have been working for several weeks to build a case for an appointed superintendent, and now aim to gather the support required to convince the School Board to hold a referendum on the issue.

“We need the voters of Okaloosa County communicating with the School Board,” he said. “Once they hear their voices, the School Board will have to take up the matter. They will take it up rather expeditiously.”

To get the referendum on the ballot to appoint rather than elect a superintendent, the School Board would have to vote in favor of holding one, Ryan said. The County Commission would also be asked to consider the issue, but it’s only role would be to consider how the initiative is funded, he said.

If a referendum is held and voters approve the measure, the county’s five elected School Board members would be called upon to hire a new superintendent. It would also gain the authority to fire the superintendent.

“Under this method, accountability in our School District leadership can be enforced right here in Okaloosa County,” Ryan said. “We won’t have to rely on a politician in Tallahassee to hold our superintendent of schools accountable.”

Ryan said he hopes to see the referendum on the ballot in March 2020 alongside the slate of candidates vying in Florida’s presidential preference primary. That would be the most cost-effective way to conduct the vote, he said.

Last year the Florida Department of Education listed 26 of the state’s 67 counties as having appointed rather than elected superintendents. But in November 2018, Escambia, Martin and Marion counties joined that number.

Census numbers indicate that just three counties among the 25 with a population greater than Okaloosa County — Pasco, Leon and Clay — still elect their school superintendents. Reports indicate about 2.2 million of Florida’s 2.7 million students live in districts headed by appointed superintendents.

Advantages to having an appointed superintendent, as cited in reports and documents provided by Ryan to the Northwest Florida Daily News, include allowing the School Board the option of searching nationwide for a best candidate.

Appointments are not bound by the state requirement that a candidate for school superintendent live in the district in which he or she is running.

There are some who argue an appointed school superintendent wouldn’t be able to use political clout to pack supporters onto a School Board, and that placing the power of running a school district in the hands of five elected officials rather than one increases accountability.

Supporters of an elected superintendent say a local resident will know the community and the people working in the School District, and would have an advantage in putting together a strong administrative team.

An elected superintendent is paid based on county population, whereas an appointed superintendent can request a salary the market will bear.

Ryan said a higher salary paid an appointed superintendent could possibly be offset by savings in areas like administrative overhead. He said he is still researching that issue.

Another argument raised in the appointed versus elected debate is that elected superintendents serve a definable term and are subject to the will of the voters, while an appointed superintendent could leave for another job or be fired within a year or two of being hired.

The Yes for Okaloosa Schools event, which was held at Joe and Eddie’s restaurant — owned by Noah Perillo’s father Eddie — was sparsely attended, but Ryan said he was nonetheless thrilled to have reporters representing both print and television media on hand.

One woman who did attend, Sharon Horvath, worked on the 2016 campaign of Jackson’s opponent, Marlene Van Dyke.

“I think we needed to get this on the ballot yesterday, to protect our students from poor leadership and give our elected School Board the ability to serve our students better,” Horvath said. “We’ll have better teachers and employees if board members have more input.”