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Broward School board hopes to narrow down candidate field for new leader

Broward County School Board members and Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley (center).
Broward County School Board members and Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley (center).

Broward County school board members will meet Tuesday to narrow down choices for the district's next superintendent as it looks to recover from months of turnover and tumultuous leadership.

The board is working to address concerns over school security and sexual education as they look to hire a more stable and “transformational” leader to take the helm of the nation’s sixth largest school district, which has seen both of its previous leaders leave before their terms officially ended.

The board will discuss seven semifinalist candidates, including Valerie Wanza, who was appointed Acting Chief of Staff in February 2023. She briefly served as the district's task-assigned Superintendent after then-Superintendent Vickie Cartwright stepped down.

The board is temporarily led by Earlean Smiley, who agreed not to apply for the permanent job.

All candidates passed preliminary reference checks and social media screenings. A search firm hired by the district will conduct a more in-depth background check on the candidates the school board chooses to be finalists.

The seven candidates were chosen out of 26 applicants. After complaining that the applicant pool was weak, the board reopened applications, yielding five more applicants — two of whom are semifinalists.

The seven semifinalists submitted videos to the board and can be viewed here.

The candidates

The pool includes one internal candidate, an administrator from the neighboring School District of Palm Beach County, and other contenders who have worked in the Detroit, Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C. public school systems.

  • Dr. Peter Licata, Regional Superintendent, School District of Palm Beach County
  • Dr. Jason Nault, Associate Superintendent, Waukegan Community Unit School District #60
  • Dr. Sito Narcisse, Superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish School System
  • Wanda Paul, Chief Operating Officer of Houston Independent School District
  • Dr. Rita Raichoudhuri, former superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools
  • Luis Solano, Deputy Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District
  • Dr. Valerie Wanza, Acting Chief of Staff, Broward County Public Schools

Board Member Allen Zeman says he’s confident that one of the seven can be Broward’s next top leader — and make the changes district leaders want to see.
“The board across the whole group has been clear that we need a change agent. We need someone who will bring transformation, instill a new culture, and make sure that the board, the senior staff and 14,000 teachers and everyone else that works here is committed to what we're doing,” Zeman said.

Each of the seven semifinalists met the school district’s qualification for the job, according to the search firm hired by the district, McPherson & Jacobson.

READ MORE: Broward School Board picks seven semifinalists in superintendent search

Past leadership

The school board was rocked last year when a long-awaited grand jury report recommended that four sitting school board members be removed for incompetence and neglect of duty.

Gov. Ron DeSantis removed the four board members in a show of force and replaced them with four conservative allies in August 2022.

In November, three of the appointees were replaced by newly-elected members. Torey Alston remains on the board.

One of the newly-elected members, Rod Velez, was not sworn onto the board because of a previous felony conviction. This led to a last-minute decision by the governor to appoint Daniel Foganholi to his seat instead. This is Foganholi’s second time on the board, after previously being appointed by DeSantis in 2022.

Amidst the drama over Velez’s eligibility, the board was deciding what to do with their leader, Superintendent Vickie Cartwright.

In an emotional October 2022 meeting, the board gave Cartwright 90 days to address concerns on district culture, community engagement and accountability.

In a November meeting, 19 days later, Foganholi made a surprise motion to fire Cartwright. He had the votes thanks to the four other board members who were also appointed by DeSantis.

Elected board members then voted in December to rescind Cartwright's firing, mostly because of how it happened.

The board finally decided to part ways with Cartwright in January, setting the stage for a search for a new leader for the nations sixth largest school district.

Looking ahead

The board is hoping that their new leader is “transformational” and can bring much needed stability to the district that has seen its two former leaders either resigned or let go.

The board also faces backlash from the public over their lack of a sexual education curriculum, and a plan to require all students to use clear book bags that was made without public input.

The book bags have been criticized by parents and security experts, but the school board hopes to convince parents that the bags are a good idea at a town hall scheduled for June 6, a week before a final vote on the matter.

The board is also considering requiring school uniforms for students in an effort to improve school security. This could also yield the district over a million dollars in state-issued incentives, after the state Legislature created a program in 2015 that authorizes $10 per K-8 student for districts that require uniform dress codes.

Once the board narrows the superintendent candidates during Tuesday’s meeting, the finalists will be invited to Broward to meet with community stakeholders and have one-on-one meetings with board members on June 14, and then sit for public interviews with the full board on June 15.

Tuesday's meeting is scheduled for 8 a.m. at the Kathleen C. Wright Building in Fort Lauderdale.

WLRN's Education reporter Kate Payne contributed to this story.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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