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A Broward baptism: with no quorum, no vote on new schools superintendent’s contract

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.

Updated at 12:15 p.m. on June 30, 2023.

The selection of Broward County schools’ new superintendent was supposed to be a fresh start, the turning of a page, a step towards stability.

Not so fast.

On Thursday morning, the school board meeting at the district’s headquarters in downtown Fort Lauderdale ended almost as soon as it began — without accomplishing the one thing the board was supposed to do that day: vote on incoming Superintendent Peter Licata’s contract so he could start the job next week.

Not enough board members showed up. Only three of the nine board members — Jeff Holness, Sarah Leonardi and Allen Zeman — attended in person, so a 'physical quorum' could not be reached.

It was previously known that three members — Board Chair Lori Alhadeff, Vice Chair Debbi Hixon and Board Member Nora Rupert — would be out of the country and would participate remotely.

But in the days and hours ahead of the meeting, members Torey Alston, Brenda Fam and Daniel Foganholi said they wouldn't attend in person, with Foganholi's secretary giving just two hours’ notice through an email.

Fam was calling into the meeting but it ended before she could join.

READ MORE: Broward school board selects Peter Licata as new superintendent

“Madam Superintendent, because we only have three members of the board physically present, that does not constitute a physical quorum. So we are not able to conduct business today,” said board attorney Marilyn Batista.

Less than five minutes after gaveling in the meeting, Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley gaveled it out.

“We will have to adjourn the meeting. We will have to then set a date and time for the next meeting to conduct school board business,” Smiley said. “I declare this meeting adjourned.”

"If they come here and say, ‘It's about the student, it's about the child’ — then show it. And if it really is about the child, they would have been here.”
Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco, referring to the absent board members.

It’s the latest chapter in a district that has so often been defined by dysfunction, upheaval and mismanagement. Still, some in the boardroom were in disbelief, others visibly angry.

Licata was supposed to start his new job on Monday July 3. He will now have to wait almost two weeks for the rescheduled meeting.

For the seasoned educator who has sought the superintendency for years, this was supposed to mark a momentous next step in his nearly three decade-long career in public education.

Speaking to reporters, Licata voiced some frustration, noting that his wife had taken a red-eye flight to attend the meeting in person. Still, he seemed to take it in his stride.

“We're just gonna move forward. It just delays what the inevitable is,” Licata said. “We'll get through it. We'll just reschedule. And when everyone's back in town, we'll redo this all over again.”

Others were more noticeably frustrated by the turn of events.

“I'm feeling disappointed,” Leonardi said. “Because I was very excited to get started with Dr. Licata with our fresh start as a district. So I'm disappointed that that's not happening today.”

Smiley, for her part, has made it abundantly clear that she doesn’t want to stay on in her post any longer than strictly necessary. Smiley left retirement to lead the district after the departure of former Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and has every intention to go back to retired life.

“Clearly, it would have been ideal to have our board meeting, to have Dr. Licata take his seat at the dais and I make my descent. I was so hoping for that to happen today,” Smiley said. “I was very excited today about taking my leave. But it will happen.”

Broward County School Board members and Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley (center).
Members of the Broward County School Board pose for an official portrait. From left to right on the front row are Chair Lori Alhadeff, Interim Superintendent Earlean Smiley and Vice Chair Debbi Hixon. On the back row from left to right are Members Daniel Foganholi, Brenda Fam, Torey Alston, Allen Zeman, Sarah Leonardi, Jeff Holness and Nora Rupert.

Absent board members respond

Broward, the country’s sixth largest school district, has been working for months to find its next top leader. Board members were well aware of the significance of Thursday’s meeting — to ink a proposed three-year contract with Licata, who has spent his career as a teacher, principal and district administrator in neighboring Palm Beach County public schools.

When Thursday’s meeting was scheduled, district officials said they knew three members would be out of the country, including the board’s chair and vice chair.

But in the days and hours before Thursday’s meeting, the question of whether enough members would attend became more urgent.

According to Smiley, Alston made it clear two days before that he would not be attending. Fam sent a message to district Chief Communications Officer John Sullivan at 10:16 pm on Wednesday saying she planned to call in (Fam says she was recuperating from a surgery on Tuesday). And at 7:09 am on Thursday morning, a secretary for Foganholi said he would be out of town and would not attend.

The three had previously expressed reluctance about choosing Licata. Alston and Fam had voted for another finalist, Sito Narcisse, while Foganholi had argued the board should pause the search and keep Smiley on the job, though he ultimately cast his vote to hire Licata.

The three are also seen as conservatives on the otherwise liberal-leaning board, which is officially nonpartisan. Alston and Foganholi were appointed to their seats by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“These things happen. People who love to ride roller coasters are happy to get on them. And people who are scared of them don't want to get on them.”
Dr Peter Licata, incoming Broward County Public Schools superintendent

“My schedule this week and next week were always questionable. I shared this with the board,” Alston said. “I look forward to the rescheduled meeting where the entire board will be in person, which should be the case on a big item as approving the Superintendent’s contract.”

Board Member Brenda Fam described the situation as “poor planning."

“Three people away, one recovering from pre-planned surgery,” Fam said. “If a fourth board member had arrived my husband was on standby to drive me to make quorum.”

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Broward Teachers Union President Anna Fusco alleged the absence of the three was politically motivated, which Alston and Fam denied. Foganholi did not respond to a request for comment from WLRN.

“Everything that's been happening these past few years has been politics,” Fusco said. “In any elected position, there's always going to be some type of politics. But at the end of the day, if they come here and say, ‘It's about the student, it's about the child’ — then show it. And if it really is about the child, they would have been here.”

Licata's says he's ready to ride the "roller coaster"

In the minutes after the meeting was adjourned, Zeman said he had no idea why those three members didn’t attend.

“This is not how you run a mature organization,” Zeman said. “I don't want to claim that there's any conspiracy going on. But that meeting should not have happened that way. And it was not condoned by the school board members present.”

Asked if the turn of events gave him any second thoughts about the job, Licata said “absolutely not."

“These things happen,” Licata said. “People who love to ride roller coasters are happy to get on them. And people who are scared of them don't want to get on them.”

“This is a great district,” Licata added. “There's too many hard-working teachers, principals, bus drivers, cafeteria staff that are here, administrators, that are working so hard. So they deserve someone who's going to be able to fight the fight and be there for them. I don't scare very easily.”

Leonardi says part of why she wants Licata on the job is that he’s willing and able to chart the politically turbulent waters of Broward County.

“This is obviously not the way we wanted to start, but I'm confident that he can rise above it,” Leonardi said. “He's got some work to do.”

What’s in the contract

Under the proposed deal that Licata and his legal team negotiated with the board, Licata would sign on for a three-year contract with a base salary of $360,000 — $10,000 more than the salary of former Superintendent Vickie Cartwright.

Under the deal, Licata would also get access to the district’s benefits coverage, though he opted to decline medical, vision and dental insurance in exchange for an additional $9,802.32 a year for the value of that coverage. The contract also gives him a $1,200 a month “car allowance” for the use of his personal vehicle for district business.

Licata also negotiated a term in the contract that if the board voted to terminate him without cause, it would take a supermajority of six board members, instead of a simple majority of five.

The district has rescheduled the meeting to vote on Licata's contract for Tuesday July 11 at 9 am.

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