Seven semifinalists chosen for Broward schools superintendent

South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Scott Travis | May 22, 2023

Seven semifinalists are now in the running to become Broward’s next schools superintendent, with the two most popular candidates so far coming from the outside.

Valerie Wanza, chief of staff for Interim Earlean Smiley, is the favorite of Smiley and several major employee groups. But only six of nine School Board members voted to name her a semifinalist.

By comparison, all nine named Luis Solano of Detroit Public Schools as a finalist while seven chose Peter Licata, of Palm Beach County Schools.

Board member Allen Zeman chose Solano and Licata, but not Wanza.

“Dr. Wanza is an amazing executive. She has led here. She’s demonstrated courage. She’s taken unpopular positions and defended herself for decades for Broward County,” Board member Allen Zeman said after the meeting. “I need a candidate from somewhere else. She may win, but my preference is to have someone from outside. I need a culture change.”

Board members each chose up to five semifinalists individually during a board meeting Monday, with a goal of choosing five collectively. But after the vote Monday, three tied for fifth place, so the School Board decided the final pool will be seven. They are:

  • Solano, deputy superintendent for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, was chosen by all nine board members.
  • Licata, regional superintendent, Palm Beach County Schools, was chosen by seven board members, but not Brenda Fam or Torey Alston.
  • Wanza, chief of staff for Broward County Public Schools, was selected by six board members, but not Zeman, Fam or Board Chairwoman Lori Alhadeff.
  • Jason Nault, associate superintendent of teaching and learning, equity and accountability in Waukegan, Ill., was chosen by five board members: Alhadeff, Zeman, Debbie Hixon, Sarah Leonardi and Daniel Foganholi.
  • Sito Narcisse, superintendent, East Baton Rouge School District, was chosen by four members: Alston, Fam,  Zeman and Jeff Holness.
  • Wanda Paul, chief operating officer for the Houston Independent School District, was chosen by four members: Alston, Alhadeff, Rupert and Leonardi.
  • Rita Raichoudhuri, former superintendent for Kalamazoo (Mich.) Public Schools, was picked by four: Foganholi, Hixon, Rupert and Zeman.

All seven will be invited to submit videos by Friday that School Board members will watch. They plan to select three finalists on May 30 and a new superintendent June 15.

The School Board initially received 26 applications, with one dropping out. After some board members complained the pool was weak and there might be more interest, they reopened the search. That yielded five more candidates, with two who qualified.

Both of the new qualified candidates, Narcisse and Raichoudhuri, made the final seven.

For the most part, the School Board avoided discussing why they supported or didn’t support any particular candidates, with one exception: Narcisse, the only sitting superintendent on the list.

His application included a letter of recommendation from Los Angeles Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, the former leader of Miami-Dade Schools.

“Dr. Narcisse is well respected in the country and has worked in some of the most complex urban school districts in the nation with a similar context to Broward County,” Carvalho wrote.

The district’s search firm McPherson and Jacobson called him an “excellent candidate” and after a review of social media and a reference check, “there is nothing identified in his background that would be an issue” for the district.

However, some local residents and School Board members became concerned when they learned through a Google search that the East Baton Rouge school district participated in a controversial event last fall called “Day of Hope.” Many said it resembled a religious event and included discussions related to issues such as rape, suicide, gender and LGBTQ issues, according to reports.

After hearing about the concerns, Narcisse issued a statement emailed to board members over the weekend.

“Please allow this communication to serve as verification that alleged issues surrounding the Day of Hope were investigated by independent counsel and it was determined that Superintendent and staff adhered to policy and protocol in the authorization of the event,” the statement said.

Still, Board member Sarah Leonardi encouraged her board members not to consider Narcisse.

“There are several candidates on this list that don’t have any baggage, at least not publicly,” she said. “I think we all have baggage, but not to this extent.”‘

Zeman said after the meeting he thinks Narcisse is still a great candidate, given his vast experience.

The next superintendent will lead a school district that has been mired in problems and controversies in recent years, including a mass shooting, a scathing grand jury report, a mismanaged school construction program, mediocre student performance and dwindling student enrollment.

The successful candidate could become Broward’s fourth superintendent in two years. Former Superintendent Robert Runcie resigned after being indicted 2021 on a perjury charge that was recently dismissed.

The School Board chose Vickie Cartwright to replace Runcie, but her job became in jeopardy after a grand jury report skewered the district and prompted Gov. Ron DeSantis to remove and replace four board members. Cartwright was forced out in February and replaced by Earlean Smiley as interim superintendent. Smiley agreed not to apply for the permanent job.

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