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Palm Beach Schools Superintendent's Tenure Was 'Bookended By Crises,' As He Announces Resignation

Donald Fennoy Sun Sentinel.jpeg
Michael Laughlin/Sun Sentinel
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Palm Beach County School Superintendent Donald Fennoy speaks during a meeting last September.

The aftermath of Parkland. How to manage COVID-19. Escalating racial tensions. These are just some of the challenges Donald Fennoy has faced in his time leading the Palm Beach County school district. WLRN spoke with Palm Beach Post reporter Andrew Marra about the superintendent's tenure.

The Palm Beach County school board will soon begin its third search for a new superintendent in just six years.

While it's not unusual for superintendents of large school districts to turn over after a few years, in Donald Fennoy's case, the end came sooner than he had expected.

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Fennoy told Palm Beach Post education reporter Andrew Marra that he had originally planned to stay in the post for five years, but the stress of COVID-19 and the demands of a young family accelerated that timeline.

When he leaves in mid-October, Fennoy will have led the district for about three and a half years. That time has been "bookended by crises," Marra said.

WLRN spoke with Marra about Fennoy's trying time in office, what's next for him and the challenges the school board could face trying to replace him.

The following is an excerpt of that conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity.

WLRN: What do we know about why Superintendent Fennoy is leaving?

MARRA: He told me, basically, it was time. In fact, he said those exact words. He said he had sort of a five-year timeline in his mind, pre-COVID. But then after the year he's had with the pandemic crisis — that really accelerated things.

And it was purely a family-based decision, is what he said. He wants to spend more time with his family. He wants to stay local in Palm Beach County. But he has two young children, who he wants to be able to spend more of his precious time with.

So he hasn't given us any more information about what he plans to do next just yet? Except that he plans to stay local?

That's right. He did say he plans to stay local. He said he loves the area, and his wife really likes the area. So he does plan to stay in the area. He said he's entertaining offers.

He did say he's already received some offers and outreach from people looking to avail themselves of his services, but he hasn't said what. And it could be in public education or it could be in some other field. The consulting world is very lucrative for former superintendents. So there are possibilities there. So it remains to be seen. He's kept that close to the vest.

And Superintendent Fennoy formed a consulting company earlier this year. I'm curious if that seemed to you like a sign that he might be planning to move on?

Well, certainly, in hindsight, yes. It was something that his predecessor, Robert Avossa, had done. Avossa recruited him here. He and Avossa were sort of joined at the hip for many years. Avossa gave him a start as an administrator at a high school in Orlando. Then they went together to Charlotte. Then they went from there to Atlanta — the Atlanta area, Fulton County —and then, of course, back down here. And Avossa also stayed locally. He still continues to live in this area. He left for another job and now his consulting company of his own.

And so when Dr. Fennoy did the same thing, it seemed like part of a pattern. And a lot of people wondered, well, is he planning his sort of exit strategy? And he hasn't said directly if he plans to do more consulting. He did tell me a month or so ago he was going to do some consulting on the side, which is allowed by his contract. He's allowed to do private work in addition to his public duties. So that certainly seems like a possibility, especially as planned to stay locally. And in hindsight, it probably was the first sign he was already thinking about moving on.

When I saw that, I was like, on the side? I mean, how does he have any time on the side? So that just made me think, well, maybe he's planning to have a lot more time on the side soon.

Absolutely, because superintendents, of course, were extremely busy in this last year. And so one wonders, in the middle of a pandemic, where everyone's working crazy hours, how does this thing cross your mind, that you would have time to do this? And so, perhaps, that was a forward-looking move.

He's had an especially tough year. He lost his in-laws to COVID-19. As you've reported, he lost a significant amount of weight due to the long hours and stress of the pandemic. He's had battles with teachers over reopening, with parents over how to teach about race, with school board members over his performance. Can you give us an overview of some of the factors that likely led to this decision?

Well, sure, and to step back, his whole career as a superintendent here has just really been bookended by crises. He started just weeks after the Parkland school massacre, when, of course, as you know, much discussion around the nation was about school security. That was a long discussion and it involved lots of changes, especially here in Florida. So much of his first year in office was dominated by that — expanding police and mental health services. And that really had just started to subside when, of course, the coronavirus pandemic started. And that's been the last year or so of his time here. So he's really been tested by these extraordinary seismic changes in the world of public education.

And the last year, of course, that's really come to bear. It's been an incredible year for schools everywhere here. There were a lot of issues with dealing with teachers who wanted to be able to teach remotely. Of course, there were all the same debates over masks and reopening, as you saw elsewhere around the country.

And then this year — this is really more of a school board issue, but it did affect him to some extent — the strategic plan and the words they used about acknowledging white privilege and white advantage — that created a lot of controversy. There's also been internal school board politics and school district he's had to deal with, in terms of choosing his cabinet, making administrative changes that were unpopular with some board members. So there's been a lot. Last year's really been packed with all sorts of trauma and crisis.

Superintendent Fennoy was the Palm Beach County school district's first Black superintendent, and he was one of the youngest — he's 45. He also has small children who go to school in the district. And I wonder what does it mean for the district to lose those perspectives at the helm?

Being the first Black superintendent — that was a really significant milestone that a lot of people were really proud of. He never liked to make a big deal out of that. In fact, he made a point of saying it wasn't something he really focused on. But indeed, of course, it was a historic moment for our district.

Also it's relatively rare for a superintendent of large districts to have children in the system at the time. His predecessor, Robert Avossa, also did. But again, we see some of the consequences of that, of course. The flip side of that is, it's often really difficult to have a young family and be a superintendent. And both Robert Avossa and now Donald Fennoy have both said part of the reason they left after a relatively short tenure was because of their families and just realizing the tradeoffs of trying to have a family and run a school district this large were just untenable.

And now the school board has to replace him of course, and they’ll be doing that at a time when many other large school districts are also looking for new leaders — including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and also Broward County here locally.

I’m wondering if the school board is concerned about being able to find a strong candidate, if they're going to be probably competing for a similar pool of candidates. There aren't that many people who are qualified or interested — or both — to take over a big school district like this, especially at a time like this.

That is a major concern. I've spoken to numerous school members who raised that concern, and so that's going to weigh heavy on them as they decide how they want to proceed.

During their last superintendent search, they decided to restrict it to only internal candidates. The one before that, they'd done a national search. That's more expensive, takes more time.

It does sound like a majority of them think a national search should take place, just to exhaust all options. But there is a concern that it won't yield the same number of qualified applicants that it would typically do so.