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Consultant: Florida politics are driving away Broward superintendent candidates

Charles Trainor Jr.
Miami Herald
In this file photo, a speaker addresses the Broward County School Board at the district's headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.

Florida’s education politics are keeping qualified candidates from applying to be the next superintendent of the state’s second largest school district. That’s according to a search consultant hired by Broward County Public Schools to help find the district’s next leader.

“Politically, Florida is a challenge,” consultant Ralph Ferrie of the firm McPherson Jacobson LLC told the school board on Tuesday. “I'm being very straight up with you. Very, very challenging.”

Twenty-six people applied for the job ahead of the April 27 application deadline. Only 15 of the candidates met the district’s minimum qualifications, according to Ferrie — and, when pressed, Ferrie said he thought only two applicants could really hack it in Broward.

“Look, on this list, there’s probably three people that can do the job. Two that I’m pretty confident with. Two,” Ferrie said.

Ferrie said he had been actively recruiting multiple promising candidates who are sitting superintendents or assistant superintendents — but said that ultimately they decided not to apply.

“Politically, Florida is a challenge. I'm being very straight up with you. Very, very challenging.”
Ralph Ferrie, consultant, McPherson Jacobson LLC

“What are going to be my board relationships? I'm going to watch board meetings, I’m going to read the press. I'm going to look at newspapers. I'm going to assess the political environment in Florida. These are the issues. Let alone the sunshine law, personal issues,” he said of potential applicants.

“It's a challenge to come where I've seen turnover in superintendents like a revolving door … Those kinds of things are as or more important than a salary.”

Board members 'disappointed' by applicant pool

Multiple members voiced disappointment in what they consider to be a narrow and shallow pool of applicants, despite the group including Valerie Wanza, a top BCPS administrator.

Board Member Torey Alston described the pool as “weak” and “junior varsity”. Board Member Nora Rupert said she was “extremely disappointed” with the candidates.

Board Vice Chair Debbi Hixon said that state lawmakers’ “micromanagement” of education policy is “100%” driving away promising superintendent candidates.

“Something no one is really saying, but it's very clear that [the issue] is Broward County — we have gone through a lot of craziness. The state of Florida and education in the state of Florida is not … sexy,” Hixon said. “People don't want to come here for a variety of reasons. And so I don't think it's surprising that we didn't see any superstars.”

READ MORE: Read about the 26 people who applied to lead Broward schools

Even if the board decided to reopen the search — as some board members advocated for — Hixon reasoned that the pool wouldn’t really change, as long as the political pressure persists.

Alston, who was appointed to his seat by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, denied that Florida’s political environment is pushing candidates away.

“Absolutely not,” Alston told reporters. “Based on conversations I’ve had with different candidates or potential candidates, they love Florida. They love South Florida.”

“We have gone through a lot of craziness. The state of Florida and education in the state of Florida is not … sexy ... People don't want to come here for a variety of reasons. And so I don't think it's surprising that we didn't see any superstars.”
Debbi Hixon, Vice Chair, Broward County School Board

Ferrie recommended six candidates, who he thought went above and beyond the district’s minimum qualifications and also passed a social media screening meant to filter out those who might “embarrass” the district.

The top four candidates recommended by Ferrie include:

  • Peter Licata, Regional Superintendent, School District of Palm Beach County
  • Jason Nault, Associate Superintendent of Schools, Waukegan Community Unit School District #60
  • Luis Solano, Deputy Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District 
  • Valerie Wanza, Acting Chief of Staff, Broward County Public Schools

Ferrie also flagged two other candidates as possible contenders, but rated them lower than the top four. Those applicants are:

  • Keith Oswald, Chief of Equity and Wellness, School District of Palm Beach County
  • Wanda Paul, Chief Operating Officer, Houston Independent School District

The school board did not take any votes on the candidate pool on Tuesday, opting to hold off on any concrete decisions until a meeting on Tuesday May 9.

Next superintendent will follow 'revolving door' of leaders

BCPS knows perhaps better than any other Florida school district the pressure that the state is exerting over local education — the district was subject to a statewide grand jury investigation which prompted DeSantis to remove four school board members from office.

DeSantis’ appointees went on to fire the district’s then-superintendent Vickie Cartwright, though the vote was later overturned. Cartwright ultimately left the district in February after reaching a mutual separation agreement with the board.

Despite strong support from board members and community leaders, the district’s Interim Superintendent, Earlean Smiley, did not apply for the post. Smiley came out of retirement to take the job, after previously working as a deputy superintendent, principal and teacher in the district.

“From the very beginning, I have in no uncertain terms communicated that I am absolutely not interested in long-term employment in the Broward public schools,” Smiley said. “I've done my time.”

Next week, the board is slated to take up the issue again at a meeting on May 9. Board members could opt to recruit more candidates or begin narrowing down the current pool.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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