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Broward school board selects Peter Licata as new superintendent

Peter Licata speaks to reporters after being voted the new Superintendent of Broward County Public Schools on Thursday June 15, 2023.
Gerard Albert III
Peter Licata speaks to reporters after being voted the new Superintendent of Broward County Public Schools on Thursday June 15, 2023.

Dr. Peter Licata will be the next leader of the Broward County schools, as the nation’s sixth largest district looks to stabilize leadership, transform internal culture and lift the district to an A letter grade.

“This is a dream job. I'm coming home,” said Licata, a Broward County native. “We get one shot at this. And I'm not spending it on the sideline.”

The board voted 7 to 2 in favor of Licata after a lengthy discussion, with Board Members Torey Alston and Brenda Fam voting for another candidate, Sito Narcisse. The vote came after a two day-long marathon of interviews with board members, principals and community members, and a months-long national search.

Licata currently serves as a regional superintendent in the School District of Palm Beach County. He was the only finalist currently working in Florida and touted his knowledge of local and state policies during his interviews.

“The community said what they want in a new leader is a transformational change leader … You also talked about creating a culture from within. Relying on our schools, holding them accountable, becoming the A [district] and having complete transparency with no blemishes in the past. Well, you've just described me,” Licata told the board.

Licata grew up in Pompano Beach and has worked in neighboring Palm Beach County for almost three decades. Licata said he didn’t initially plan to go into education and instead went to work at age 17 to support his family after both his parents became ill.

He says it was at the funeral of his father — an algebra teacher — that he was inspired to go into education, after hearing how his dad had touched the lives of his former students.

READ MORE: Principals, community interview the finalists for Broward schools superintendent job

Licata started his career as a classroom teacher and a coach before becoming an assistant principal and principal, ultimately moving into district administration. In his current role, Licata oversees the 60 schools in SDPBC’s South Region, which borders Broward County. He holds a PhD in Global Leadership from Lynn University.

“I don't need to learn the system. I don't need to learn legislation,” said Licata. "I spent a lot of time in Tallahassee over the years. I don't need to know the geography."

Peter Licata answers questions from members of a community board on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.
Gerard Albert III
Peter Licata answers questions from members of a community board on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.

Licata has sought superintendency for years

Licata has been a frequent applicant and finalist in superintendent searches across Florida and previously was a semifinalist for the Broward search that led to the selection of former Superintendent Vickie Cartwright.

He has four children, two of whom are attorneys, one who is a child psychologist and one who plans to become a teacher.

During his interviews he leaned heavily on his experience and results in Palm Beach, which boasts an A-rating.

“If I can do that in my region … think what I could do with this district. Think what I could do knowing the formula and knowing the nonnegotiables that I have for children,” he told board members.

Licata won over the support of School Board Chair Lori Alhadeff, who said she was impressed by Licata’s knowledge of the district and the dynamics in South Florida as well as his prescription for lifting Broward’s overall rating through targeted investments in college and career readiness, advanced coursework and industry certifications.

”We need someone to execute. And I think Dr. Licata is that person,” Alhadeff said before the final vote. “He's a very respected leader in the community. He knows the community. He has good relationships. There's no controversy surrounding Dr. Licata.”

Board Member Sarah Leonardi said Licata struck her as someone who won’t shy away from hard conversations, who does their research and is student-centered.

“One candidate spoke consistently about how students are his singular motivation. One candidate was able to demonstrate a deep knowledge of Broward County Public Schools. He did his homework. One candidate told me truths that I didn't necessarily want to hear, but he was honest with me,” said Leonardi. “And I want someone who wants us and I really felt that Dr. Licata wants to be our superintendent.”

Turnover at the top

Licata will be the district’s fourth superintendent since February, when then-Superintendent Vickie Cartwright reached a mutual separation agreement with the school board. A task-assigned and interim superintendent followed Cartwright while the board proceeded with a national search for Broward’s next permanent leader.

Some school board members and the consultant hired to help coordinate the search have said the state’s divisive education politics kept promising candidates from applying for the job. BCPS itself has been plagued by dysfunction, mismanagement and the lasting aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

A total of 31 candidates submitted formal applications for the job, 17 of which were deemed qualified for the position. The board opted against selecting the only internal candidate for the post — the district’s Acting Chief of Staff Valerie Wanza.

The other two finalists for the job were Sito Narcisse, the Superintendent of the School District of East Baton Rouge, and Luis Solano, the Deputy Superintendent of Labor for Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Peter Licata speaks to principals on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.
Gerard Albert III
Peter Licata speaks to principals on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.

The challenges ahead

The next superintendent will face challenges that leaders across the country are grappling with — declining enrollments, the disruptions and learning loss brought on by the pandemic, and persistent disparities in student achievement and discipline, especially for children of color and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

The superintendent is also taking on challenges unique to BCPS, a system that in the past five years has been plagued by infighting, staff turnover and tragedy. Complaints of dysfunction, mismanagement of public funds and a lack of transparency persist — in the words of one board member, “a carousel of crazy.”

Hanging over the district is the threat of state interference, at a time when Gov. Ron DeSantis is continuing to centralize control over education policy. In August 2022, DeSantis removed four Broward school board members from office and for a few months, a majority of the board was made up of his political appointees.

“Being a superintendent in Florida it is going to be incredibly difficult. There's a tremendous turnover and this profession is going to require an adept individual who can maneuver constantly changing legislation and ongoing political attacks, all while meeting the needs of faculty, staff, students and families,” said Geanny Joseph Ruiz of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida.

Facing questions about how to navigate state restrictions on how race, identity and history are talked about in the classroom, Licata acknowledged that public districts are bound to comply with the law.

“Public education is the key to the reason why we are a superpower … we can't let public education slip through our fingers,” Licata said. “We have to teach what the legislature asks us to — or tells us to — by the standards and we have to make sure we stay steady on that. We can't veer off that too often. But remember, teachers have the right to teach.”

The board opted against Sito Narcisse, the leader of Baton Rouge public schools and the only sitting superintendent to apply for the job. Narcisse is the son of Haitian immigrants and a career educator with experience at large urban districts across the country and the endorsement of Alberto Carvalho, the former superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

But some school board members and community advocates raised concerns about a controversial field trip in Narcisse’s district that was billed as a college fair but some students said was more like a church service.

Next steps

Dr. Licata’s contract negotiations will take place on June 21 (and the 22nd if needed), when his first day on the job will be decided. The school board will then hold a special meeting on June 29 to vote on the terms of the contract.

Licata’s ability to build his own leadership team will be somewhat limited by a district reorganization proposed by Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley, which the board approved just days before selecting Licata.

As the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported, the administrative shakeup included promotions, demotions, nonrenewals and some raises in the tens of thousands of dollars.

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