Palm Beach County School Board appoints interim superintendent

WPTV | By Matt Papaycik and Scott Sutton | June 21, 2021

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The search for a new superintendent of public schools in Palm Beach County took center stage on Wednesday as school board members met to discuss the future of the tenth-largest school district in America.

Dr. Donald Fennoy announced last week he’s resigning effective Oct. 11 after three years on the job. Fennoy said he’s leaving to spend more time with his family.

The school board voted unanimously to appoint Chief Financial Officer Michael Burke as the interim superintendent.

Burke, who has worked in the school district since 1998, will still need to sign a contract for the interim position, which could happen in the coming days.

“I’d like to thank the board for entrusting me with this responsibility,” Burke said. “I am honored, and I promise I will work hard to make you proud of this appointment.”

The board also voted to allow that interim superintendent to apply for the permanent position.

During an earlier workshop held Wednesday, the Palm Beach County School Board discussed a variety of important factors related to the search for a new superintendent.

Board members had agreed during the workshop to vote at the special meeting on when to name an interim superintendent, who it should be, and when that person should start.

“Regardless of how aggressive we want our timeline to be, there’s no way we’re going to have a permanent person before Dr. Fennoy leaves us,” said Vice Chair Karen Brill. “Whoever moves into that position is going to need the assistance of the current superintendent.”

Brill, along with board members Erica Whitfield, Barbara McQuinn, Dr. Debra Robinson, Marcia Andrews, and Alexandria Ayala all supported naming a superintendent expeditiously.

“I do agree we need to appoint someone tonight,” Brill said. “School is opening up. We need to get on track and move forward with our search.”

School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri suggested the possibility of moving Fennoy to a lesser position before his departure and have the interim superintendent take over those responsibilities.

“That should be, at least, in my opinion, a two-week transition period so that the interim can get up to speed on exactly what’s happening in the superintendent’s office,” Barbieri said. “So I suggest that we give them at least two weeks, no matter who it is.”

The school board on Wednesday also discussed a proposed timeline for the superintendent search process.

According to documents from the School District of Palm Beach County, if the board decides to use an external search firm, the goal would be to have a new superintendent in place by January of next year.

“I hope that we’re gonna keep this timeline fluid,” Brill said. “We should be able to be a little bit more aggressive and hopefully have somebody in place sooner than what the timeline says.”

Barbieri suggested there may not be a permanent superintendent in place until the very end of the 2021/22 school year next May.

Board members also debated if they should conduct an internal search for a candidate within the School District of Palm Beach County, or launch an external search focusing on the entire state of Florida or even nationwide.

If the board decides to conduct an external search, they may choose to hire an outside company to identify candidates. There are several search firms to select from, including one that specializes in Florida-only educators, and several that look for applicants around the country.

Whitfield expressed her interest in conducting a national search because she said there’s currently less trust from the community in the school district.

“Limiting it to people within this building wouldn’t garner the trust level that I’m hoping that we could get,” Whitfield said.

Robinson suggested waiting until later in the year to make a decision on the board’s search strategy.

“I want us to get this interim in place for the start of the school year, stabilize the district,” Robinson said. “And then, in my mind, we can wait until say, November, to start having the conversations about, do we want to search?”

In addition Whitfield and Robinson, board members Brill, Barbieri, and Andrews expressed their desires on Wednesday to conduct a nationwide search for a new superintendent. In doing so, they must consider the salary and qualifications for the job.

According to school district figures as of July 2021, Fennoy makes an annual salary of $306,167.

In Miami-Dade County, which is the fourth-largest school district in America, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho makes $374,365 a year. In Broward County, the sixth-largest district in the U.S., outgoing Superintendent Robert Runcie has an annual salary of $356,201.

Currently, some of the biggest school districts in the country including Los Angeles, Chicago, Cincinnati, Seattle, New Orleans, San Diego, and Broward County are all looking for superintendents.

“Over the last 16 months, there have been over 100 superintendent searches,” said Dr. Gonzalo La Cava, the chief of human resources for the School District of Palm Beach County. “The last time I checked, there’s probably 40 searches taking place right now.”

Fennoy told WPTV last week the competitive job market will likely make conducting a national search very difficult. Instead, he’s in favor of an internal candidate.

“We have all the tools necessary to be successful,” Fennoy said. “All of the teams are running on all cylinders.”

Fennoy — who was hired during an “internal only” search — signed a five-year contract in 2018 and made history by becoming the first African American superintendent in Palm Beach County history.

Fennoy was not present at Wednesday’s workshop and asked if he could be excused from the discussion, according to Barbieri. Instead, Deputy Superintendent Edward Tierney filled in for Fennoy.

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