Judge clears path for Seminole school board to hire superintendent tonight

Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal | March 23, 2021

A judge Tuesday denied a request to stop the Seminole County School Board from hiring its next superintendent, clearing the way for a contract with Serita Beamon to be approved.

lawsuit filed on behalf of a Seminole mother and teacher sought a temporary injunction to prevent the school board from signing a contract with Beamon, which it is slated to do at its Tuesday evening meeting.

The picking of Seminole’s next school superintendent has divided the school board and roiled the county and its well-regarded school system, spawning angry public debate, the lawsuit and even a call for the state’s governor to intervene. The arguments have touched on the finalists’ qualifications and their race — and on the school board flip-flopping on who it wanted to run the A-rated district.

Brevard Circuit Judge Michelle Naberhaus said she made her ruling based on the law, which views an injunction as an “extraordinary” measure that should only be imposed in limited circumstances. In this case, she said, those who sought it failed to prove they would suffer “special injury,” if Beamon was hired, and so they failed to meet the legal standard needed for her to impose one.

Philip Kaprow, the attorney for the mother and teacher who sued, had argued the school board violated its own policies when it rescinded its decision to hire Chad Farnsworth, who it first picked for the job.

He also said his clients wanted to temporarily stop the school board from hiring Beamon so they could investigate further “what appears to be the unscrupulous behavior of the school board.” He suggested the board was wrongly pressured to hire Beamon, who is Black, after first agreeing to hire a white man, which some viewed as a case of “reverse discrimination.”

In an email after the judge’s ruling, Kaprow said he could not say yet whether his clients would pursue further action.

Robert Sniffen, the school board’s attorney, had argued there had been no legal wrongdoing on the board’s part and there was no legal justification for a court to stop it from hiring the superintendent it had selected.

“This was the petitioners’ shot to keep the school board from moving forward,” Sniffen said Tuesday after the judge’s ruling. “The school board will be moving on tonight.”

Naberhaus listened to about an hour of arguments during an online hearing Monday and, in the same format, delivered her ruling Tuesday.

The superintendent hiring process has been steeped in controversy, with the five school board members unable to reach a consensus on who would best replace Superintendent Walt Griffin, who is retiring this spring.

The school board tapped Beamon, who is Black, for its next superintendent on a 3-2 vote March 1. But that came after another 3-2 vote on Feb. 9 in which it selected Farnsworth, who is white, and then, in an unusual move, voted 3-2 on Feb. 23 to rescind that decision.

Beamon, the board’s attorney, and Farnsworth, an assistant superintendent in Lake County, were the two finalists interviewed for the job.

Board member Amy Pennock, who wanted to hire Farnsworth, recently wrote a letter to “citizens of Seminole County” warning the county was on a “new brink of racial divide.” She posted it to Facebook on March 10 and mailed it to Gov. Ron DeSantis the next day, questioning whether the board had acted legally and whether Farnsworth had been discriminated against.

“We have brought disruption and dishonor into these chambers. Worse yet, where time and again our community has stood resilient to heated disputes with lines on race and gender, our actions as a body have brought our community … to a new brink of racial divide,” she wrote.

A spokesman for DeSantis said late last week it had not received Pennock’s letter and also noted the issue was a “local matter.” The office could not be immediately reached again Tuesday.

Pennock and others who supported Farnsworth, said he was better qualified, having spent his career in education. He was a teacher, assistant principal and superintendent in a small North Florida school district before taking a job several years ago in Lake. Farnsworth has since said he no longer wants the Seminole job.

Beamon’s supporters said though she is not an educator, she has been deeply involved in top-level district decisions for years and is well qualified to keep the well-regarded school district on its current path. Beamon, who has worked for Seminole schools for 16 years, had the support of Griffin and other top administrators.

In public meetings, a number of Black community leaders spoke in her favor, some both touting her qualifications and saying it was time the district had a Black person and a woman in the top job. Beamon, if her contract is approved, would be the district’s first Black and first woman superintendent.

County residents have spoken about the superintendent search at every recent school board meeting, with some urging the board to start anew.

“I implore you to start that search over,” said Kelly Shilson, who described herself as a former PTA mom and athletic booster who as a parent and business owner had always supported Seminole’s public schools. “Start this over. It’s a hot mess.”

Shilson, speaking at the board’s March 9 meeting, said the board’s reversal was “appalling” and she could not see any superintendent wanting to start a job “under a cloud.”

But Dan Smith, president of the Seminole teachers union, said the board and the school district would do best to approve Beamon’s contract and move on.

“Mistakes happened and only time will resolve the mistakes,” he wrote in a letter to Pennock that he also shared publicly. “I understand that there are many with influential voices who do not want a Black woman as superintendent. They fear it will disrupt the district. It just may disrupt the district. The district will get over it. Now is not the time to appease those who just want a white candidate – now is the time to lead and educate those who still think this way.”

The school board’s agenda for Tuesday lists approving a superintendent’s contract with Beamon. Her proposed salary is listed as $190,000. Her current salary is $174,675. Griffin, who has been in the job for more than nine years, earns $247,997.

Photo: Chad Farnsworth, left, and Serita Beamon were finalists for the superintendents job in the Seminole County school district. Farnsworth was first selected, then the school board reversed course and chose Beamon. – Original Credit: Courtesy photo (Courtesy photo)

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