COLLIER COUNTY — When it came to choosing a new superintendent, it appears the Collier County School Board decided to have its cake and eat it, too.
The board voted unanimously Wednesday evening to hire Kamela Patton, who is currently the region administrative director for the Miami-Dade School District.
“It feels really good,” Patton said. “This is not a broken district. There is a communication gap and communication is my strong suit. I think I bring enhancements to a great school district.”
Patton also praised the district’s process, which include visits to schools, meetings with the public and individual board members.
“I really feel I have gotten to know Collier County,” she said. “I have so enjoyed my last three days. It will be interesting to go back to Dade after being here and seeing what happens here.”
Patton was chosen after the board initially split over whether to choose her or Collier County School District Chief Operations Officer Michele LaBute, with Board Chairwoman Julie Sprague and board member Pat Carroll sitting firmly in LaBute’s corner. Board members Kathleen Curatolo and Barbara Berry were in Patton’s corner.
That left Board Vice Chairman Roy Terry, who was on the fence.
“This is a very difficult decision. In most areas, I think the two candidates are neck and neck. They bring a lot of positives without many negatives,” he said. “I have to make up my mind about what’s best for the school district. I am right on the fence.”
Carroll and Sprague said their decision to choose LaBute came after realizing her financial acumen was second to none.
“I asked the candidates about their philosophy of fiscal responsibility. Michele LaBute connected her financial philosophy to students, to the classroom and to connecting programs. ... Dr. Patton would take care of adults. That is an emphasis that has gotten other school districts in trouble,” said Carroll.
To Berry, Patton stood out because of her energy.
“This is a job that is going to require a lot of energy,” she said. “We need to ignite the education side of this institution and communicate with enthusiasm to the public. As difficult as it is, I will cast my vote for Ms. Patton.”
Berry also pointed out that, by choosing Patton, the Collier County School District would get to keep two equally good women in the district.
Carroll argued that LaBute has the support of the community and has maintained respect.
“I worry about bringing in someone who is high energy and makes a connection and then that connection waivers,” she said.
Curatolo said she spoke with a constituent who was firmly in LaBute’s camp and then, after meeting Patton at a breakfast, changed his mind.
“This is one of the hardest decisions I have made as a board member,” she said after the meeting. “In the areas where we need to change, Dr. Patton gave examples to me and other community members that drew my interest. The other issue that enveloped me is her communication skills. ... I took her to a school. I watched her interact with staff. I watched her in the public forum (Tuesday). She converted people.”
Terry said, in the end, the district couldn’t lose.
“It was a tough decision. But I think we made a good decision,” he said.
Sprague called Wednesday’s decision a “tipping point” for the district. She asked that the community give Patton 100 percent support.
“I think she has the ability to bring things in to help us,” she said.
Sprague also said she thought LaBute and Patton would work “marvelously” together.
Patton expressed admiration for LaBute and said LaBute “absolutely” has a place with the district.
“I have not met one person who does not think she is anything but wonderful,” she said. “She’s outstanding.”
LaBute did not appear in the Collier County School Board chambers following the vote. Attempts to reach her were unsuccessful Wednesday evening.
As for plans to bring people in from Miami, Patton said Tuesday evening that she has no immediate staffing plans.
“I believe in assessing who’s internal first,” she said. “Look around. There are a lot of outstanding staff members here.”
She also kept her word on what she told board members and the community this week — that she would be a good communicator to the public.
“If I make as promise, I deliver,” she said.
Patton said her next step will be exploring the district’s data and assessing where Collier is and where the district needs to go. She will also be calling Lee County, where she was a finalist for the superintendent’s job, to decline their offer to come and interview, she said.
There is also the matter of her contract. The Collier County School Board has set the base salary at no more than $200,000, but Patton’s salary and benefits will have to be negotiated.
The Collier County School Board will hold a workshop to discuss Patton’s contract at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, May 5, in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Administrative Center, 5775 Osceola Trail.
Connect with K-12 education policy reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers.