PBC School Board must weigh how much change they want as they begin superintendent search

Palm Beach Post | By Andrew Marra | July 19, 2021

After whipsawing through years of turnover and change, the resignation last week of Palm Beach County’s schools superintendent gives the county’s public schools yet another chance to map out a new course.

But first school board members will have to decide how much more change they’re up for.

How much of a reset the school district can handle will be at the heart of board members’ conversation next week about how to go about replacing Superintendent Donald Fennoy, who last week became the third superintendent to resign in six years.

As they gear up for another executive search, will board members look to usher in a new era, as they did in 2015 with a national search that brought in Robert Avossa, a brash rising star in the education world, from out of state?

Or will they opt for stability as they did in 2018, when they agreed to consider only internal applicants and selected Fennoy from among three district administrators?

4 of 7 Palm Beach County school board members want to go national

In interviews this week, four of the seven board members said they favored hiring a national search firm. Though conceding the ongoing pandemic and several superintendent vacancies in other large districts make finding qualified candidates more difficult, they argued they owed it to the public to try.

“I always like to do a national search,” School Board member Erica Whitfield said. “I want to get the best people we can.”

“I think we’re going to have to do that this time,” board member Marcia Andrews said. “I think it’s necessary to do it. We’ve been here before, and we need to take our time and do it right.”

Still, some board members expressed reservations about looking beyond the county, saying an outsider with new ideas and little understanding of the school district is the last thing a system buffeted by turnover needs.

“I’d rather have someone hit the ground running,” School Board member Alexandria Ayala said. “We have too many things that are volatile, that are hot-button items and require knowledge of the system.”

In his three years in office, Fennoy led the district through the aftermath of the Parkland school shootings and the coronavirus pandemic, two epochal events that altered the face of public education.

In that time, academics often took a back seat to matters of school safety and public health, with the district’s lackluster improvement in reading achievement a persistent source of disappointment.

Looking for a spotlight on learning

Now, schools are set to fully reopen next month, the school board is crafting a new strategic plan, and educators are hoping to place more high-level focus on teaching and learning.

“A priority for me would be somebody who has sustained academic success, because we have not been able to move our reading scores,” board member Barbara McQuinn said.

Board members took different tacks with each of the three superintendent searches since 2015.

But each one ended in disappointment, with their selected candidate heading for the exits after a three-year stay amid worsening relations with board members. Nationally, superintendents of large school districts stay in place for 5½ years on average, according to Chalkbeat.

Former Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Wayne Gent testifies in the trial of Clarence Shahid Freeman in West Palm Beach Tuesday, May 24, 2016. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)
Former Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Wayne Gent testifies in the trial of Clarence Shahid Freeman in West Palm Beach Tuesday, May 24, 2016. Bruce R. Bennett/The Palm Beach Post

In 2012, Superintendent Wayne Gent won the job after a low-budget search yielded no satisfactory candidates. Originally appointed as an interim and told he wouldn’t be eligible for the permanent gig, Gent nonetheless was persuaded to take on the assignment.

When he resigned little more than three years later to take the top job in St. Lucie County, the school board hired a national search firm to find a replacement.

The process culminated with the hiring of Avossa, a sitting superintendent lured from the Atlanta area with the largest superintendent contract in state history and even bigger expectations.

Having snared a star in the public education world, board members routinely boasted they employed the best superintendent in the country.

School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw, from left, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa and board clerk Carol Bass attend a meeting Wednesday February 14, 2018 in West Palm Beach. (Meghan McCarthy / The Palm Beach Post)
School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw, from left, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa and board clerk Carol Bass attend a meeting Wednesday, February 14, 2018 in West Palm Beach. Meghan McCarthy/The Palm Beach Post

But after persuading board members to spend $570,000 on an efficiency study and filling top district positions with former colleagues from Atlanta and Orange County, Avossa engaged in a series of emotional clashes with other officials, then left after less than three years for a job in the publishing industry.

Burned by his departure, board members decided against mounting another national search. For the sake of continuity, they decided this time to consider only internal candidates.

Fennoy emerged as the consensus choice among three finalists. He had worked in the district just two years, as the chief operating officer, and had no high-level experience on the academic side of a school district. But board members were reassured by his varied experience and closeness to Avossa.

His departure little more than three years later came as little surprise after a year of unusually outspoken criticism of his performance from board members, principals and the teachers union.

But it puts the school board again in the position of wondering why it can’t keep a superintendent in place for more than three years.

At a workshop meeting scheduled for Wednesday, board members are expected to discuss whether to consider external applicants and hire a search firm; whether Fennoy should be required to remain on staff through Oct. 11 as his contract dictates; and if an interim superintendent should be appointed in the meantime.

Setting the parameters of the search can seem like obscure minutiae, but School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri reminded board members last week that even seemingly small choices about the process can have long-lasting effects.

“The decisions this board makes as to those three issues will have a major impact on this district, potentially for years into the future,” he said.

10 Years, Five Superintendents

Palm Beach County public schools have been led by five superintendents since 2011, and the search is on for a sixth.

2001-2011 – Art Johnson

2011-2011 – Bill Malone

2011-2015 – Wayne Gent

2015-2018 – Robert Avossa

2018-2021 – Donald Fennoy

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