New Broward Schools Superintendent Howard Hepburn says he’s here to stay

Sun Sentinel | By Scott Travis | May 28, 2024

Howard Hepburn is vowing to become a different kind of superintendent for Broward County Schools — one who actually stays.

Hepburn, 45, signed a three-year contract May 21 at an annual salary of $340,000.

He became the sixth person in three years to hold the title of superintendent. Since longtime Superintendent Robert Runcie stepped down in 2021, the district has had a revolving door of leaders, with four different people serving as superintendent in 2023 alone.

“Hopefully, I’m the last superintendent for a long time,” Hepburn told the South Florida Sun Sentinel during his sit-down interview with the newspaper. “I’m committed to Broward County Public Schools. When it comes to changing the trajectory of an entire district, you can’t do that in six months or a year. I’m committed to being here for a long haul to see that through.”

His rise as the top leader in Broward was quick and unexpected.

A former teacher and principal in Orange County and a former instructional superintendent in Palm Beach County, he was recruited to Broward by his former boss Peter Licata.

The Broward School Board hired Licata last summer after a national search.

The board had cut ties with former superintendent Vickie Cartwright in early 2023 after a tumultuous tenure that included Gov. Ron DeSantis removing four board members due to a scathing grand jury report.

Two longtime administrators — Valerie Wanza and Earlean Smiley — filled in as superintendent on a temporary basis until Licata arrived in July.

Hepburn was Licata’s first major hire last August, taking on the role of deputy superintendent for teaching and learning. School Board members say they were impressed by Hepburn, finding him to be approachable, responsive, eager to learn and respected by district staff.

So when Licata made the surprise announcement April 17 he was stepping down due to health issues, board members wasted no time in naming Hepburn as the replacement. He became superintendent that day.

“We needed stability,” Board Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff said at the May 21 meeting. “I have full confidence in Dr. Hepburn.”

Hepburn said the quick departure of Licata, who he saw as a mentor, surprised him.

“I know this isn’t how we wanted to end his 30-year career in education, and it certainly isn’t the way I want to see him end it,” Hepburn said. “At the same time, I felt very blessed the board and many in the public saw it in me to take the wheel and continue the trajectory and focus on the priorities that are going to move this district forward.”

During the interview, Hepburn addressed a number of other major issues he faces as the new leader.

Public trust

In recent town hall meetings, many parents have expressed a lack of trust in the school district due to perceived disparities in how certain schools or communities are treated, poor condition of facilities or difficulties getting problems resolved.

The district has lost about 50,000 students to charter schools and another 50,000 to private and home-school options, Hepburn said.

Hepburn said a priority will be improving community and parent involvement in the school district.

“I’ve noticed that’s been a gap that I’ve observed. Some of that is a result of a lack of trust in our system. Some of that is a lack of communication about what we do and how we do in our system,” Hepburn said. “So really being transparent about what we do, how we do it and really marketing our schools and our systems better will be important.”

Closing/repurposing schools

A major controversy Hepburn inherited was a plan called “Redefining Broward County Public Schools,” which sought to close or repurpose schools to deal with declining enrollment.

An initial plan to close three schools and change the programming or grade configurations of nine others was widely panned at seven town halls, leading to Hepburn to scrap the most contentious recommendations of the plan. Ultimately the School Board instructed Hepburn to start over again.

The initiative had been led by Licata as well as administrator Zoie Saunders, who left the district after three months to lead the education department in Vermont.

“That wasn’t particularly my plan. I wasn’t involved in much of that process,” Hepburn said. “So as a result, I picked up the baton, I went to town halls to get feedback and listen to that feedback to see what changes need to be made or see if we need to pivot differently.”

A proposal to remove the successful Montessori magnet program from Virginia Shuman Young Elementary in Fort Lauderdale and turn it into a neighborhood school drew fierce opposition, with 200 parents and supporters packing a town hall at Fort Lauderdale High.

“I don’t really understand where that part of the plan came from,” he said.

Hepburn did defend another proposal, to close the Oakridge Elementary in Hollywood. The school is 76% full, putting it well above the 55% threshold the district said it was using to identify schools that may need to close. But Hepburn said the facilities are subpar.

“You have surrounding schools with better facilities,” he said. “Which ones do the kids deserve to walk around in and be educated in? A facility that’s constantly falling apart or should they be in a facility where it’s modern, it provides a better learning environment?”

The School Board plans to revisit future school closures at a workshop Wednesday.

Budget problems

The district is making millions in cuts this year, due to the declining enrollment, the expiration of federal COVID relief dollars and major new expenses such as a settlement in a charter school lawsuit over 2018 referendum dollars.

But Hepburn insists the district won’t have to lay off employees or hurt the quality of education students receive.

“Right now we’ve pretty much balanced our budget for the upcoming school year,” he said. “We’ve probably cut about $10 million from our central office. There are also some cuts in schools, but we’re not laying off anyone. We have a lot of attrition in our school district, so there’s always a home for a teacher.

“We always have room for teachers who may be impacted at a school by having an assignment at another school.”

Student performance

One of Hepburn’s tasks will be to help turn Broward into an A-rated school district by the state. While neighboring Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have frequently gotten A’s in the past few years, Broward hasn’t been A-rated since 2011.

Hepburn said Broward is comparable to the other counties in overall math and language arts scores but is lagging in a category related to student acceleration, meaning the performance of students when it comes to middle school students taking high school-level courses and high school students taking college-level courses.

“Number one, we’re not opening the doors to more students to take advantage of those opportunities. And then number two, we need to make sure that principals all the way down to teachers are well trained to understand the nuances of those courses so we can support our students better, provide better instructional opportunities and better supplemental, instructional opportunities in and outside of school.”

Hepburn will be eligible for a $10,000 bonus if Broward does increase its grade to an A.

$800 million bond program

Hepburn will qualify for another $10,000 bonus if he can achieve certain milestones in the $800 million SMART bond program, which voters approved in 2014. SMART stands for safety, music and arts, athletics, renovations and technology.

The renovations portion of the program has been plagued with problems, with costs doubling and projects facing years of delays. All projects were supposed to be finished by 2021, but only 39% are complete, according to the most recent report to the district’s Bond Oversight Committee.

“We will be looking at SMART bond projects every week and understanding the progress and understanding the barriers that are preventing things from being complete,” Hepburn said. “I think looking at it that way and having a pulse on it on a weekly basis — and sometimes daily basis for large projects that we need to move quicker — is going to help us land that plane.”

The district’s chief facilities officer recently resigned, but Licata recently hired Wanda Paul, a former operations and facilities administrator in Palm Beach County and Houston school district as chief strategy and innovation officer. Her duties are expected to include work in facilities. The district also has a contract with AECOM, a consulting firm that is managing the bond program.

Safety and security

Safety and security have been top priorities on the School Board since the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

School Board Chairwoman Alhadeff lost her daughter, Alyssa, in the tragedy, while Vice Chairwoman Debbie Hixon lost her husband, Chris, who was a coach and security monitor at the school.

Since then, the district has spent millions adding law enforcement and security officers to campuses, installing gates and fences to limit public access and adding more security cameras and training personnel on safety protocols.

Hepburn will be responsible for rolling out an initiative started by Licata: adding metal detectors to district high schools starting this summer.

“I consider Broward County Public Schools the beacon of safety when it comes to our schools,” he said. “Many people call us to find out what we’re doing to enhance security at our schools.”

Hepburn said the district has a great security team, and “we’re constantly in conversations with local law enforcement and national law enforcement just to continue to assess and revise as needed for continuous improvement and to enhance our safety.

“We never rest,” he said. “We’re always trying to make sure we’re doing the best to ensure the safety and security of our students.”

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