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Palm Beach County's New Superintendent Takes Over For Longtime Mentor In Quick Transition

Jessica Bakeman
Donald Fennoy poses for a portrait during a series of media interviews at a West Palm Beach elementary school on Wednesday, the day before taking over as superintendent of the nation's 11th largest school district.

Robert Avossa surprised the Palm Beach County School Board and the community early last month when he announced he would leave the helm of the school district after two and a half years for a new career in publishing.

He also surprised his protégé, Donald Fennoy, who he had mentored for more than 15 years. Fennoy worked under Avossa at a school district near Atlanta and followed him to Palm Beach County, serving as chief operating officer of the nation’s 11th largest school district for the past couple of years.

On Thursday, Fennoy becomes the boss.

“I always knew I wanted to be a superintendent of a large urban school district. I had no idea that it would be Palm Beach,” Fennoy said on Wednesday during a series of local media interviews ahead of his first day. “I really thought Dr. Avossa was going to be here for the rest of his career.”

As he left, Avossa recommended the school board consider an internal candidate. The board advanced four top administrators, tapping Fennoy last week for the quick transition.

"Everyone's voices must be heard as we make decisions."

Fennoy’s father was in the military, so he moved around a lot as a child. He considers Detroit his hometown, although he was born in New Mexico and spent parts of his childhood in England and South Carolina. He attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee for his undergraduate degree and then earned a master’s and doctorate from the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

He started his education career teaching reading in Orlando and eventually became a high school principal in Charlotte, N.C. He worked for a while at an education nonprofit in Maryland before Avossa hired him as an administrator in the Fulton County, Ga., school district. After Avossa took the superintendent job in Palm Beach County in 2015, he hired Fennoy to take the COO  position.

Fennoy is the district’s first black superintendent, and, at 41, he is among the youngest to hold the job.

"I get to visit with kids again. I'm so excited about that."

He is looking forward to getting involved with academics again.

“My work has solely been on the business side of the district,” he said. “So now I need to get to know principals and teachers and schools. I get to visit with kids again. I'm so excited about that.”

Fennoy has two kids of his own — a 9-year-old son who goes to a Palm Beach County public school and a 2-year-old daughter who he hopes will one day attend a dual-language program in the district.

"Poverty is real, even in Palm Beach. There is maybe a misperception outside of our world that everyone here is a millionaire. That's not true."

He said his positive experience with his son’s school was one of the reasons he decided to apply for the superintendent job.

“The fact that this school was taking such good care of my child just gave us a warm, fuzzy feeling around the community,” he said.

Fennoy said he plans to work collaboratively and focus on listening to the residents of the county about what they want and need in their schools.

He stressed the size of the district and noted that its different communities face different challenges. Hunger and unemployment are struggles in some areas, for example. There are populations of Haitian and Guatemalan immigrants, he said.

“Poverty is real, even in Palm Beach. There is maybe a misperception outside of our world that everyone here is a millionaire. That’s not true,” he said.

"Our kids have been forced to grow up real fast. I am so proud of them and their activism."

“Everyone’s voices must be heard as we make decisions,” he said.

Fennoy said safety is of “paramount” concern now after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in nearby Broward County. He said school leaders have to help parents feel assured that their kids will be safe at school and help students cope with the new role many of them have taken on as activists for gun control.

Students across the country held walkouts and protests on Wednesday to mark the one-month anniversary of the Feb. 14 massacre that left 17 people dead and 17 others injured.

“Our kids have been forced to grow up real fast. I am so proud of them and their activism. And I think part of our work now is to help them navigate this moment in time, to help them truly continue [with] this mantle that they're carrying: to be the spokesperson for this generational shift,” he said.

Fennoy starts not only as school districts are grappling with a new law that would allow for arming school staff but also as his colleagues throughout the state are complaining over stagnant school funding.

Fennoy said he hadn’t had a chance to study the numbers yet in the budget the Legislature passed — which other superintendents are calling on Gov. Rick Scott to veto — but he said the district is in need of additional funding to raise teacher salaries and finish building projects.

“In this moment in time, we absolutely need more money,” he said.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.