At its Dec. 14 meeting, the board of the Monroe County School District approved extending Superintendent Theresa Axford’s employment contract through July 31, 2024, with an annual salary of $175,000. But the approval did not go completely smoothly. Out of the five board members, one cast a dissenting vote: Bobby Highsmith.

Highsmith pointed out during the meeting that when Axford’s first contract was created in the depths of the pandemic, the terms stated that she would hold the position from July 31, 2020, through July 31, 2022. 

The contract read as follows: “This agreement may be renewed for one calendar year as approved by a supermajority of the board.” 

“That unique language was put in there because Mrs. Axford was hired with the understanding that this was going to be an interim type position, that she did not want the job for more than two years,” Highsmith said at the meeting. “And that if there were extraordinary circumstances, a supermajority of the board could vote to give her one additional year. As I said at the last meeting, I think Superintendent Axford has done a magnificent job guiding us through COVID and she’s been wonderful. And my vote not to renew this current agreement is no reflection on that. 

“But we did say we did not open the pool to any other candidates when Mrs. Axford was hired, we did not conduct any sort of search … and we told the public at the time that the reason we were doing that was because Mrs. Axford would only be here for a short amount of time. And I think we made that pledge to the public and I think our words should matter.”

Highsmith told Keys Weekly that he would have been comfortable if Axford’s new contract extended her employment for just another year, through the end of 2023, rather than through 2024. 

He also pointed out that when she was hired in July 2020, it was a time of great instability: the pandemic was raging; the previous superintendent, Mark Porter, had decided not to renew his contract; and the district had also just lost its director of finance.

“To add stability, the board decided not to solicit candidates but decided to directly hire Mrs. Axford with the understanding that it was for two years,” Highsmith said.

He reiterated that he approves of her work. “I think she has done a fabulous job,” he said.

Axford has been with the district for 33 years. Before becoming superintendent, she was the executive director of teaching and learning for the district. 

In a statement to Keys Weekly, Axford did not address Highsmith’s dissenting opinion, but instead expressed gratitude to the school board.

“I have been proud and honored to serve the students, teachers, staff and families of the Monroe County School District during the past year and one-half as superintendent,” Axford said. “I am really pleased that the school board extended my contact through June 2024 and I look forward to continuing the work of the district by helping to develop a new strategic plan, working on affordable housing and continuing our positive journey back from the difficulties brought on by Covid-19.” 

Board vice chair Andy Griffiths told Keys Weekly that he had no problem approving the contract through 2024.

“​​She did such a fabulous job under historic circumstances, under the pandemic, with flying colors,” Griffiths said, pointing out that she is his 10th superintendent. “I know what’s out there. I know who applies for these jobs. I’m not saying we should search, but when you have a good one, you should hang on to them. And it was important to show that support last night.”

Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines;; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.