Who is Peter Licata? The backstory on Broward's new superintendent
Broward County’s new superintendent is no stranger to South Florida public schools. Dr. Peter Licata grew up in a big Italian family in Pompano Beach and spent almost three decades as a teacher, principal and administrator right over the county line in the School District of Palm Beach County.
WLRN’s education reporter Kate Payne spent time there to find out more about the kind of leader Licata is — and the people and experiences that have shaped him.
'Doc's a mentor'
As soon as I walked into Principal Dominick Rizzatti’s office at Eagles Landing Middle School in Boca Raton, he made sure I saw what was hanging on the wall.
“That's the picture of the regional office team. So in the center of the picture is Dr. Peter Licata,” Rizzatti explained. “Doc's been … Dr. Licata has been a mentor. It's just nice to see him. So I keep him up there.”
I met with Rizzatti the day after the Broward County School Board voted unanimously to approve Licata’s three year contract as the district’s new superintendent. Even though Licata had officially left Palm Beach schools, Rizzatti told me he has no plans of taking down the photo.
“He’ll be up there. He’s not coming down,” Rizzatti said. “Broward County’s lucky. But he’s not coming down.”
Rizzatti and Licata go way back — before Licata became the regional superintendent overseeing Eagles Landing and dozens of other schools in the southern part of Palm Beach County.
“I was a teacher at Olympic Heights High School,” RIzzatti said. “That's how I got to know him. He was my principal.”
Licata was inspired to go into teaching after the death of his father, a longtime algebra teacher and coach. Starting out as a teacher and basketball coach at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Riviera Beach, Licata worked his way up the ranks in the district.
He’s known for his devotion to his family, his sense of humor, his attention to detail — the kind of person who doesn’t forget a face or a name — and for really listening to people.
“Good decisions are made collaboratively and catastrophic decisions are made in isolation — that's his leadership style,” Rizzatti said. “When you trust that the person leading you means what he says and says what he means, that goes a long way.”
For Rizzatti, Licata was more than just a teacher, a principal, a boss.
“My kids were both born under his leadership as my principal. He was at the hospital for both of their births,” Rizzatti said. (His wife confirmed this).
“His guidance has led me to help a lot of kids,” Rizzatti added. “It chokes me up. I love him! I love him. It's a huge loss for us.”
'He must have seen something in me'
Next door at Sunrise Park Elementary School, Principal Alicia Steiger was seeing some summer school students off on a field trip.
She’s been the principal of this school for more than a decade — but she didn’t always believe she was cut out for leadership. (A week after we spoke, Steiger was promoted to be the Elementary Instructional Superintendent for the South Region.)
“Dr. Licata is probably the reason that I'm in administration,” Steiger told WLRN.
He hired her as an assistant principal back when he was the principal of Boca Raton Community Middle School.
“I did not think for a minute that I was going to get that job. Did not think for a minute,” she said. “He must have seen something in me that maybe at the end of that interview, I didn't see. So I'm super thankful for that.”
That’s one of Licata’s gifts, Steiger says.
“He is in the business of really seeing people's attributes and their leadership styles and tapping into that,” she said.
'People think of him as a politician'
That was a common refrain among the district officials and former colleagues who spoke to WLRN about Licata — that he’s a collector of people and a builder of relationships.
“I think that people think of him as a politician. And I don't mean that in the most negative sense. I mean that in terms of the shaking hands and kissing babies kind, right?” said Debra Robinson, a former Palm Beach County school board member and the chair of the Coalition for Black Student Achievement.
“What he adds to that is setting the vision and doing the work,” Robinson said. “Working relationships for the common good.”
Robinson, who served on the board from 2000 to 2022, said she’s seen Licata build relationships in communities of color in Palm Beach.
“Everywhere he has gone in the Black community — when I've been there — he's got a story that connects whoever he's talking to. Like his dad was their coach or he started teaching at Kennedy [Middle School] with them. It's just like, dog, you know everybody?” she said with a laugh. “It’s like old school conversation, you know what I mean?”
One of Licata’s main pitches to get the top job in Broward is that he can help all students succeed and make Broward an A-rated district — like the School District of Palm Beach County. But, as Robinson points out, Palm Beach schools are not “A”s for everyone.
Black and Latino students in Palm Beach scored 20%-30% lower than their white classmates in language arts and math on statewide tests in the 2021-2022 school year.
“I think we all have some degree of responsibility up and down the food chain, right?” Robinson said. “Nobody's exempt. We're all cogs in the wheel. And the wheel has allowed these disparities to perpetuate. We could point to examples of decreasing disparities. But the real question is, did we do everything we could? I know we didn’t.”
Licata dismisses discrimination allegations as 'frivolous'
Candidly, it was difficult to find people willing to criticize Licata on the record.
Some district staff and community advocates said they simply didn't know him well enough to form an opinion, like the head of the county's Hispanic Education Coalition.
But Licata has faced challenges.
He was named in a 2011 lawsuit, filed by a biracial teacher who claimed Licata created a hostile working environment, made racially discriminatory comments to him and denied him career opportunities.
A judge ultimately dismissed the case, which was later detailed in a book written by Fordham University School of Law Professor Tanya Katerí Hernández, who’s an expert in anti-discrimination law.
Licata has called the lawsuit frivolous and says the fact that the claims were dismissed “says enough”.
One of Licata’s first big tasks after becoming regional superintendent was handling a scandal at Spanish River Community High School. The school’s principal had refused to say the Holocaust was a historical fact.
“The way that Dr. Licata handled that very challenging situation was tremendous,” said Joshua Davidow, the principal of nearby Don Estridge High Tech Middle School.
Licata ushered in a new principal and helped mend relationships in the community, said Davidow, who is Jewish.
“When you're talking about national news or things of international news … it takes a very skilled leader to be able to navigate those waters,” Davidow said. “Hopefully, Broward never has to have anything like that. But if there was tumultuous water, I do feel very confident to have Dr. Licata at the helm.”
As Licata takes on his new job leading the country’s sixth-largest school system, he’s inheriting a district that’s been plagued by dysfunction, distrust and tragedy.
Those challenges will put Licata’s diplomatic and political skills to the test. His supporters hope that Broward gives him the chance to lead.