Seminole school board narrows superintendent search to two finalists, plans interviews next month

Orlando Sentinel | by Leslie Postal | January 20, 2021

Two finalists will be interviewed for the superintendent’s job, the Seminole County School Board decided late Tuesday, none from neighboring Orange County.

The board plans to interview Serita Beaman, its attorney, and Chad Farnsworth, an assistant superintendent in the Lake County school district and a former superintendent of a small North Florida district. It is seeking a replacement for Superintendent Walt Griffin, who is retiring in the spring.

The board’s search committee recommended five candidates be considered for interviews — among them three administrators from the Orange school district — but only Beaman and Farnsworth won support from a majority of the board.

“Dr. Griffin, you’re leaving some very big shoes to fill,” board member Kristine Kraus said, but said the two finalists were “outstanding” and the board appreciated the other applicants’ interest. “Thank you for wanting to work for the best district in Florida.”

The board plans to interview the two candidates on Feb. 8 and pick Griffin’s replacement the next day.

The board was unanimous in wanting to interview Beaman and Farnsworth and nearly unanimous in rejecting the other three.

“All five, I truly feel, can and will be a superintendent someday and somewhere,” said board member Tina Calderone.

But, she added, the board’s goal was to find the “the right person at the right time that will sustain the culture we have” and maintain the county’s “phenomenal” public school system.

The Seminole school district, with about 67,000 students, is A-rated and among the top-performing districts in Florida.

Calderone questioned whether Seminole’s search for Griffin’s replacement had attracted “every quality candidate in the nation,” and board member Amy Pennock also raised that issue.

Jeff Siskind, a former president of the Seminole teachers union, suggested the board re-advertise for a new superintendent, noting all the candidates were from Florida, with largely similar experiences and education.

He reminded the board that in 1992, board members did a national search and ended up hiring Paul Hagerty from Springfield, Missouri.

“They thought other perspectives might be useful,” Siskind said in written comments read aloud at the meeting.

Hagerty served for a decade and was so well regarded that a high school near Oviedo now bears his name.

But neither Calderone or Pennock pushed expanding the search, and the other three did not voice support.

The district conducted its search in house, rather than hiring a search consultant, but advertised in national school publications and with national superintendent associations as well as across the state. It received several applications from out-of-state candidates, including ones from Georgia, New Jersey and Tennessee.

Amy Lockhart, a former school board member, led the board’s search advisory committee. The committee received 28 applications, though two later withdrew, and recommended five be considered.

Lockhart said last month that the committee recommended candidates from Florida because it was convinced the new superintendent would need to understand Florida school rules and finances, especially given the budget and logistical challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic.

Beaman has been the board’s attorney and director of the district’s legal services department since 2015. She has worked for the district since 2004. She is also a former private firm attorney and admissions counselor at Stetson University.

Farnsworth is the assistant superintendent for human resources and employee relations at the Lake school district. He is also a former superintendent of Bradford County schools where he was a teacher and administrator before serving in the top job for four years.

Chairman Karen Almond asked the board Tuesday if anyone wanted to interview other candidates who had applied but not been recommended by the search committee. No one did.

The board voted against interviewing Harold Border, Scott Howat and James Larsen, the three Orange County Public Schools administrators recommended by the search committee.

The board plans to offer the next superintendent a three-year contract, a salary of at least $165,000 to $195,000, and other benefits. The new schools chief is to start by June 1.

Photo: Seminole county public school Superintendent Walt Griffin greets students on the first day of the 2015-16 school year at Lake Brantley High School. Griffin is retiring this year, and the Seminole County School Board is searching for his replacement. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel) (Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel)

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